Needle pickup

Penticton firefighter Austin Conquergood collects a used needle in this file photo from earlier this year. People are a low risk when they encounter a discarded needle, an Interior Health doctor told West Kelowna councillors this week.

People are at low risk if they find or step on a discarded needle, West Kelowna city councillors heard Tuesday.

Dr. Silvina Mema, a medical health officer for Interior Health, said the chance of communicable diseases like HIV being transmitted by a used needle is much lower than people may realize.

“I can assure you from a medical perspective that those needles are not dangerous, right?” Mema told councillors.

“The risk of someone getting a communicable disease from those needles is practically zero. I can’t say zero, because if someone with HIV pokes themselves and right away pokes someone with no HIV, there is a three per cent chance the other person will get it,” Mema said.

“So the risk is very very low,” she said. “But that’s not to dismiss the concerns people may have. I am a mother. I have young children who run away barefoot in the park, and I get worried because I don’t want them to get poked by anything. I totally get the outrage.”

Mema made her comments in response to a question from Coun. Doug Findlater who referenced a recent story in the Okanagan Saturday newspaper that revealed Interior Health had bought more than one million needles in 18 months for free distribution to drug users in the Valley.

Between Jan. 1, 2018 and June 30, 2019, IH ordered 609,000 needles for Kelowna, 219,000 for Penticton, and 209,000 for Vernon.

Findlater wondered if Interior Health had any programs to encourage drug users to return needles, rather than simply throw them away where they could be found by members of the public.

“We have an opioid crisis, but we also have a needle-littering crisis that I think is really sapping public support for some of the things you’re trying to do, because people are finding needles in so many places,” Findlater told Mema.

Interior Health does encourage drug users to return needles, providing them with small containers to do so, Mema said. The agency also works with municipalities to set up disposal containers in areas known to be frequented by drug users, council heard.

“We are not collecting every needle,” Mema said. “We see this as a garbage disposal issue. We give the needles out, and do the best we can to get them back. We give incentives to people to return them. We build a relationship. We give them small containers to get them back.”

She stressed what she said was the low risk to public health posed by the discarded needles.

“If you do find a needle, there’s no need to call the 911,” Mema said. “It’s something that can be simply disposed of.”

On its website, Interior Health offers advice for dealing with a discarded needle. Steps include picking up the needle by the centre of the syringe barrel, using latex gloves if available, putting it into a rigid plastic container, securing the lid, and taking the container to a health unit, pharmacy, or community drop box. Then wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water.

Mema also said people should avoid using language which she said would stigmatize drug users.

“There’s a whole list of words that are no-nos, for not to say. And ‘clean’ is one of them,” she said.

The word may make people who are trying to quit illegal drugs by using approved treatments like suboxone and methadone feel they are not clean people, Mema said.