Needles 'almost zero' risk

Chelsea Powrie

UPDATE: 4:20 p.m.

Interior Health says a Penticton incident in which children found a needle and one may have stepped on it is "unfortunate," and "not surprising," but stands by its free needle distribution program in the community. 

Sylvina Mema, a medical health officer with IH, said they work hard to prevent incidents like the one that led small children to a discarded needle at Skaha Lake Park this week. 

"This is the sad reality we live in, substance use is prevalent, we have an opioid crisis, homelessness is increasing," Mema said. "And when you couple homelessness with an opioid crisis what you begin to see is improperly discarded needles and other drug paraphernalia, and then it's a matter of time until someone will step on it."

Interior Health accepts used needles back wherever they give out needles, and works with municipalities to develop strategies like sharps containers and public education to cut down on needle issues. They have a meeting scheduled with the City of Penticton Thursday to discuss strategies. 

"The conversation with the city really is, where are they finding needles? Beaches, at public spaces, parks, is there Bylaw going, what areas, are there sharps containers in those areas, is there community cleanup?" Mema said. 

When Interior Health distributes needles they give out a mini sharps container around the size of a stick of deodorant for users to store their needle and return them, a strategy Mema believes helps. 

She also said education for the public is also key for the public to teach children not to play with or touch a discarded needle, and for adults to know how to put a needle into a discarded beverage can or garbage bag to be taken to IH. 

"It's part of the solution, to improve the retrieval of these needles. The other part of the solution is to improve housing and services for people who use these substances," Mema said. 

Part of the concern around discarded needles is communicable diseases, but Mema says there is "almost zero" risk of contracting anything by being pricked by a needle. Washing the area thoroughly and going to the hospital virtually eliminates the risk.

"These needles cause a whole deal of anxiety, I'm a mother and I'm well aware of the anxiety that this causes, but from a physician's perspective, I have to say the risk is almost zero of getting any disease," she said.

The distributed needle program has been going on for almost two decades, and Mema credits it with helping stop the spread of diseases like HIV. 

"In the past, HIV was a threat to community members, and not just people with substance problems. When you have a number of people with HIV in the community then you begin to see babies with HIV, people have sex with others and it becomes more than a substance-use people problem," she explained.

The program also allows healthcare professionals to connect with drug users and potentially help them access recovery services. Stopping the needle distribution, she says, would be a knee-jerk reaction and cause more problems than it fixes. 

"People will continue to use substances, they will get needles from anywhere. HIV, hepatitis will increase, then there will be an increased risk of getting those diseases for others in that community," Mema said. "It's a very long, difficult issue. There's no easy way around it. That's why there is a meeting to talk about it."

Interior Health and the City of Penticton will meet Thursday, and the City says they will be encouraging IH to "hold a conversation with the public on the issue of sharps and how best to address the concerns being raised by residents and visitors."

“Accidental encounters of carelessly discarded sharps, combined with the manner and volume in which they are being distributed, must be examined closely and an effective multi-party solution arrived at as soon as possible," said mayor John Vassilaki. 

ORIGINAL: 9:15 a.m.

A Penticton woman took a disturbing video of her small children and niece showing her a needle they had found while playing at a park, one of whom allegedly stepped on it. 

The woman, who requested not to be named in this article, first shared the video on social media. It depicts the small children running under a large tree with a sheltered area underneath near the water park at Skaha Lake Park and pointing to what appears to be an uncapped needle. 

The woman told Castanet her son had brought her the orange cap, and that her niece stepped on it and was taken to hospital. She did not have an update on what happened with her niece while at the hospital. 

The footage and story took off on social media, sparking outrage amongst commenters and commiseration — many recognized the large tree and said their kids play under it too. 

The woman sent the video to Castanet but said "I don’t want any publicity. I’d rather see Interior Health and the City of Penticton step up to the plate by sending out a public service announcement that our parks need to be searched by parents before their kids play and how to deal with a needle poke when it happens."

She wants the video to show the stark reality of what children and families are dealing with in public spaces.

"This is how innocent our children are and oblivious to the dangers that now lurk in every children’s park within our community," she said. 

Castanet will update with comment from Interior Health today. 

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