Talbot: Ignoring research puts lives in the balance

I won’t forget Sean.

I met him years ago, during my undergrad, while volunteering with a local not-for-profit organization helping homeless and at-risk youth in London’s core.

I spent two evenings a week preparing and serving food, handing out clothes and other necessities to young men and women who, for various reasons, had found themselves in unfortunate circumstances. Most of the time, I just sat and talked to them. I’m happy to say I knew Sean – his kindness, his smile and the sound of his guitar – very well.

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TALBOT

When I met him, my first evening out, Sean was 25. Unlike most young men I had met on the streets, he wasn’t outwardly hardened by the difficult life fate had dealt him. He’d thank everyone sincerely, with a big smile, for every sandwich, every conversation, every small gesture of humanity. He was intelligent, thoughtful and a pleasure to talk to. He’d ask about your day and share your sorrows and joy, regardless of how he felt. In everything he did, Sean genuinely cared for others.

On Dec. 11, 2007, Sean came to a holiday celebration organized by staff and volunteers. By all accounts, it was a wonderful evening, filled with good company, good food, song and celebration. Sean had a great time and even won a Christmas carol trivia contest. At the end of the night, he came up with a smile, hugged me, the other staff and volunteers and said, to me, “Thanks, I really needed this tonight.”

The next morning, he was found, locked in the bathroom of a local shelter, at 28, dead from an overdose.

Last year, when the Supreme Court of Canada denied the Attorney General’s appeal to shut down InSite – a Vancouver supervised injection facility, the first and only of its kind in North America – I thought of Sean.

Last week, I thought of him again when officials in Ottawa and Toronto declined opening similar facilities in their communities, after a team of researchers recommended their implementation in the two cities as a way to improve health and reduce harm among injection drug users.

Whether Sean’s death was intentional or accidental – I’ll never know. But I have no doubt in my mind that a supervised injection site would have helped, not just my friend on the streets, but many others like him.

Contrary to what some may think, supervised injection sites do NOT provide users with illicit drugs; they provide a safe space, clean supplies and the company of a nurse and other health care staff. In the case of an overdose, staff is able to intervene immediately.

It’s simple. By providing clean equipment and disposing of it properly, supervised injection sites reduce the spread of infectious disease. By offering a safe space, they keep users from ‘shooting up’ in public places. By offering supervision, they save lives. And by opening their doors, they open opportunities for users to seek and get help for their addiction.

But that’s not all.

For injection drug users, individuals often not connected to health-care services, facilities like this are essential. Nurses there administer medication, immunizations and attend to medical needs not associated with drug abuse. These facilities are designed to work as one part of a large-scale approach to care for people dealing with addiction, mental health issues and communicable diseases.

And it’s not like they are likely to exist in suburbia, close to schools or other such locations where the public would have a legitimate concern for safety. Out of necessity, these facilities would be where the users already are. The issue isn’t exactly a not-in-my-back-yard kind of thing. Those who may object and say, ‘If you support this kind of place, we should open one next to your house,’ I think, don’t fully grasp the concept.

You don’t have to take my word for it.

Numerous studies have been done and the Canadian Medical Association has said “evidence shows that supervised injection reduces the spread of infectious diseases and the incidence of overdose and death.”

The Canadian Public Health Association has echoed this sentiment, stating “more than 50 peer-reviewed scientific articles provide irrefutable evidence that (InSite) has a positive impact on the health of the people who use its services and a positive impact on the surrounding community.”

Even the Supreme Court of Canada has shown its support of InSite, saying, “Its benefits have been proven. There has been no discernible negative impact on the public safety and health objectives of Canada.”

Meanwhile, we have city officials and politicians – among them, Ontario’s health minister – rejecting recommendations from researchers to open a handful of supervised injection sites in the province’s largest cities. Apparently, there’s insufficient evidence for their benefit, even after a new comprehensive study and report from the Toronto and Ottawa Supervised Consumption Assessment (TOSCA) prompted the suggestion, citing that Ottawa has the highest rate of new HIV infections among drug users in the province. Of the drug users in our nation’s capital, 60 per cent have hepatitis C and 52 per cent of users in Toronto are living with the disease.

I’m saddened that TOSCA’s recommendations haven’t been heeded by the very people whose job it is to advocate for the health and well-being of each and every person in the community, regardless of their luck, social status or substance preferences.

I’ve thought of Sean many times over the last four years, not just when something related to his death came up. Whenever I hear Bob Marley’s Redemption Song – Sean’s favourite – I remember him.

But my hand was made strong
By the hand of the Almighty
We forward in this generation
Triumphantly…

Those lyrics are still difficult to hear.