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NWHU Needle Exchange Program

The NWHU needle exchange program (NEP) has been getting a lot of attention on Facebook over this past week so we thought we’d provide some responses based on the posts that people have written.

We encourage you to be informed about the program and we encourage your questions!

Frequently Asked Questions:

1. What is the Needle Exchange Program?

NEPs are a global program that have been in existence for decades. The NWHU NEP is a program that is mandated by the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care. The goal of the program is to prevent the spread of blood-borne infections like HIV and Hepatitis C in our communities through the sharing of needles and other drug equipment. We distribute equipment to keep our clients and all of our residents safe.

The NEP is one part of addressing health issues associated with injection drug use. It’s not the solution to cure addiction; it’s a program to support those who are addicted. NEPs are not a new concept or just available in Northwestern Ontario; they are common across Canada and globally. Extensive evidence over decades has shown that NEPs do not encourage drug use but support people who are already using drugs.

Organizations that support NEPs include the World Health Organization, the Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, the Canadian Centre for Substance Abuse, the Center for Addictions and Mental Health, the Canadian Nurses Association (just to name a few!)

2. How does the NEP protect my community?

The NWHU is mandated to protect the health of all people in our catchment area. The NWHU provides many programs for all individuals (i.e. babies, children, seniors, LGBTQ2, workplaces, etc.) to protect them from illness and promote a healthy life.

The NEP is in place to prevent infections like HIV and Hepatitis C within our community. If people who inject drugs get these infections, it can spread very quickly throughout our entire community. Saskatchewan and Indiana are examples of how HIV rates can rise when needle exchange programs are not accessible.

The NWHU believes that all citizens in our community have the right to effective healthcare and support regardless of who they are or what they do. This includes people with addictions of all kinds.

3. Will I get HIV if I get poked with a needle on the ground?

You don’t want to see a needle on the ground and neither do we! The NHWU and the staff working in harm reduction programs work hard to ensure needles are safely disposed of and not left on the ground.

The idea of getting poked by a needle on the ground is a scary thought so it’s important that we all have correct information on the risks improperly disposed needles can cause.

The Canadian Pediatric Society says “It is extremely unlikely that HIV infection would occur following an injury from a needle discarded in a public place.”

Here is the link to

The risk of getting HIV or Hepatitis C from a needle in the community is low (less than 1%). This is because the virus is usually present within the barrel, not on the needle tip as it dies quickly with environmental exposure.

Also, having a NEP program keeps the risk of infection low, so if a needle is on the ground, it is less likely to be infected.

Please note that animals cannot get HIV or Hepatitis C, but harms like broken glass, and or general litter are always around so it’s important to think about all harms when walking your pet.

4. Why doesn’t the NEP require needles to be returned before people get new ones (a 1:1 exchange)?

Our NEP does encourage people to bring their needles back, but it isn’t required. This is for a couple of reasons:
  • Increased HIV rates - Extensive research has shown that restricting NEP service by only giving needles to those who bring back needles results in increased HIV rates because people end up sharing their needles when they can’t get more. The World Health Organization states that NEPs should not require a 1:1 exchange.
  • Improperly disposed of needles – We want people to get rid of their needles right away. However, if they need to give us needles to get more, they will not dispose of them right away and they will carry them around with them and risk dropping them.

Click here to learn about sharps disposal in Kenora from our Public Health Nurse.

5. Does the NWHU do anything to encourage needles being returned?

The NWHU spends almost as much money a year on safe needle disposal as we do on needles, and we put a lot of resources into keeping needles off the ground. For the last five years, the NWHU has put on a Spring Clean-Up Campaign.

A few highlights from our campaign include:
  • Providing various styles of sharps containers to NEP clients in an effort to support them bringing their needles back and having discreet options for storage and transport
  • Having mounted outdoor sharps containers where we find needles
  • Providing ongoing education with our clients about the importance of safely disposing of needles
  • Giving education to anyone in the community on what to do when you find a needle including “don’t touch” posters and presentations in schools
  • Health Unit staff as well as members of our community go on regular walks around town to pick up needles and equipment
  • The Health Unit provides Safe Needle Pick-Up Kits and training to members of the community so that people understand and have the proper tools to clean up safely

The NWHU works very hard to keep needles off the ground in lots of ways and we’re always open to new ideas, if you have some please call and let us know!

Click here to learn about how to pick up a needle from our Public Health Nurse.

6. Does supplying equipment through the NEP encourage drug use?

Global evidence very clearly shows that programs like a NEP do not increase drug use, initiation of drug use or criminal activity. It’s like giving out condoms; some think it encourages or leads to more sex but no evidence (or life experiences) has ever shown this.

Here is a link to some of the evidence on our website.

Our program supports people who use illegal drugs or use legal drugs illegally. We do not encourage drug use; in fact we make many referrals to mental health and addictions services for treatment and counselling.

As nurses working in public health, we do not withhold care from people who are doing illegal activities; we try to help our clients to maintain their health and wellbeing as much as possible. Keeping someone free from infection benefits our entire community.

7. Does the NEP only give out needles for drug use?

We provide kits that contain all of the equipment someone needs to prepare and inject their drug. We do this because sharing any of the equipment can lead to infection transmission.

If you have any questions, comments or concerns, or you want to learn more about the program please call the NWHU and ask to speak with the Harm Reduction manager.

8. Does the NWHU work with municipalities to run this program?

The NWHU works closely with municipalities and other community partners to help us reach our clients as well as to help keep needles off the ground.

9. Is there something I can do to keep our community safe?
  • Know what to do if you find a needle! The less time a needle spends on the ground the better. The NWHU encourages adults to pick up needles and dispose of them safely when they find them so kids don’t step on them.
If you aren’t comfortable picking it up call your local NWHU to do it for you.
  • Teach kids “Do Not Touch”! Parents often talk with their kids about how to be safe and avoid injury; this is one additional important message. Our nurses often talk with kids about this in schools.
  • Help promote our program to friends, families, and workplaces in your community. This will help spread awareness and keep our community clean and healthy.
  • It is important for everyone to advocate for more treatment and counselling options to be available in our region. Currently, mental health resources and treatments options are underfunded, and when people are ready for change, help often isn’t available.

If you have any questions, comments or concerns, or you want to learn more about the program please call the Northwestern Health Unit and ask to speak with the Harm Reduction manager.