The science is in. And Insite works. (BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS)
With his steel-grey hair and spectacles, he looks more like a country doctor than a trouble-maker, yet here is Dr. Julio Montaner cracking open what Health Minister Rona Ambrose and indeed the entire federal Conservative government consider the very gates of hell. It is the inner door to Vancouver’s Insite safe injection facility, the only such site in all of North America. All 13 mirrored booths are in use by addicts injecting illegal street drugs into their veins. There’s an old man with a motorized scooter, a young guy with a mountain bike parked behind his chair, and all ages in between. There’s a nurse and care attendants watching over the predominantly male group. It is spotless and bright in here, there’s a ready supply of clean syringes, sterilized water, alcohol swabs and rubber tourniquets to bring drug-battered veins to the surface.
There will be 600 injections in here over the course of the day. No one will die of an overdose this day; no one has ever died of an overdose here since this opened in 2003. The hundreds of overdose deaths over the years happened outside in the streets, urine-soaked alleys and the fetid single room occupancy hotels of Vancouver’s downtown eastside. Sometimes the dead are found with needles still jammed in their arms. It is sad that such a place is needed, but not as pathetic as watching someone inject in a Vancouver alley then offer a the syringe to a companion. Montaner, director of the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, watches respectfully from the door for a couple of minutes then ushers a group of international journalists outside, through a waiting room of drug-sick addicts waiting their turn.
Over the course of the next several days more than 6,000 world-leading researchers, clinicians and public health officials gathered in Vancouver for a conference of the International AIDS Society (IAS) will learn all there is to know about this store-front facility and its role as part of a harm reduction strategy that has made B.C. a world-beater in the fight against the deadly infection—and a pariah in the eyes of the Stephen Harper’s Conservative government.
Ken MacQueen reports.
Dr. Michael O'Shaughnessy