The “whole community” is invited to a one-day workshop on harm reduction taking place in Jasper on Oct. 17 and then again in Hinton on Oct. 18, said Andrea Watson, executive director of HIV West Yellowhead.
The workshops will focus largely on injection drug use, which Watson said is particularly salient given that this health region has the highest rate of HIV infection outside of Edmonton and Calgary, but she stressed that this particular topic is just one of many that falls under the umbrella of harm reduction.
“The harm reduction philosophy is about meeting people where they’re at and not trying to tell them how to change or what to do with their life but giving them the tools to be safer when they’re engaging in risky behaviour,” she said. “And that’s anything from seat belts to safe grad to needle exchange programs to helmets when you’re biking or skiing or snowboarding, to using condoms when you’re having sex.”
In the morning the workshop will feature an outline of the basics of harm reduction followed by a discussion on youth drug use with Ashley Schwanke, a nurse who works with the Streetworks needle exchange program in Edmonton. After a provided lunch, there will be a talk on drug use during pregnancy followed by a discussion on harm reduction needs in the West Yellowhead region, specifically.
Watson said providing harm reduction services is particularly challenging in the Aspen Health Region of Alberta.
“It’s the only region in the province without a needle-exchange program,” she said. “So people who are needing access to clean needles ... they might be going to Edmonton or not having access to needle-exchange programs at all.”
HIV West Yellowhead is currently working on the second part of a needle-exchange needs assessment for the region, she added.
“We’ve done the first part of the study, back in 2009, finding out from community stakeholders and people working in the social services industry, or human services, what their take is on injection drug use and needle disposal,” Watson said. “Now we are looking at the actual individuals who are users, themselves, and finding out: Where do they access their needles? Are they using clean needles? If there was a program, what would they want it to look like?”
That work has so far been limited, however, to just the western part of the enormous health region, which stretches all the way from Jasper in the west to Cold Lake in the east and Chipewyan Lake up north. Watson said the eventual goal is to get HIV Edmonton to build on the work done in the West Yellowhead and look at harm reduction needs across the entire Aspen region.
“What we want to do is raise awareness about harm reduction, what it is and how it benefits the community from purely a public health approach,” she said. “If people have access to services, they’re more likely to seek help for their addiction.”
And while there has been support for other types of harm reduction in the region, Watson said there remains a certain level of opposition within many communities towards needle exchange programs.
“It’s just such a risqué subject that needle exchanges don’t get a lot of support,” she said. “Our partnership with Streetworks in Edmonton is to help raise awareness about injection drug use and harm reduction services in a way that’s not scary to people,”
The workshops put on by HIV West Yellowhead and Streetworks begin at 9 a.m. on Monday, Oct. 17 in Jasper at the Emergency Services Building and then on Tuesday, Oct. 18 at the Hinton Centre Boardroom (Lion’s Den). The cost is $15 per person and Watson said registration is required by Friday, Oct. 14.
For more information or to register, contact Watson at firstname.lastname@example.org
There will also be workshops on Oct. 19 in Edson and Oct. 20 in Whitecourt.