An Edmonton doctor helped the province through a deadly crisis in the early 1990s.
Dr. Stan Houston said a game-changing tactic was introduced to help in the fight against HIV — harm reduction.
The infectious disease and HIV doctor helped create resources like a needle exchange program, which proved effective and evolved over the years into safe injection services.
“While people can acquire HIV in several ways, unsafe injection is one of them,” he explained in a letter. “While Albertans can imagine that we encountered some political and ideological objections along the way, there is a growing realization these are necessary public health measures to protect Albertans and reduce health-care pressure.”
Rates of new HIV infections due to injection have declined substantially over the last 30 years, due in part to the programs Houston and his team helped facilitate, as well as improvements to treatment.
“When HIV first hit, Alberta perhaps surprised other provinces by being a leader in making (the necessary drugs) available to anyone who needed them with great success.”
Houston said there are parallels between that crisis and a current one: opioid poisonings.
But the path to help those Albertans looks different.
“Inexplicably, we’re doing the opposite. Instead of looking for things we can implement and improve, we have reduced services.”
Houston called the move “illogical” and “not good science or public health,” compared to the success of the HIV harm reduction programs.
The Alberta government said it’s “completely focused on recovery.” In recent weeks, the province introduced new treatment methods like an injectable drug that helps people curb cravings and protect against overdose.
Alberta recently became the first province in Canada to fully cover the cost of sublocade. As opposed to tablet versions, the injectable treatment lasts in a person’s system for 30 days and provides stabilization, reduces cravings and provides enhanced protection against overdose, the province said.
Dr. Elaine Hyskha told Global News on Dec. 8 that removing cost barriers for that treatment option is a positive step. But, there are still medications not currently covered by the province.
“I’d like to see the gap coverage program extended further to support slow-release oral morphine, which is increasingly being used as an effective treatment for opioid abuse disorder by many clinicians in Alberta and across Canada,” she said.
“I’d also like to see the province reopen access to the injectable opioid agonist treatment (iOAT) program that they closed last year,” Hyshka said.
Dr. Rebecca Haines-Saah said she’d like to see different tools being used to address the crisis, like an exploration into decriminalization.
British Columbia became the first province to officially request the federal government for an exemption from criminal penalties for people who possess small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use. This came after Vancouver submitted its own proposal to Health Canada in June.
Haines-Saah said it’s also time to change our mindset surrounding the stigma of opioid use.
“Many people use substances (like alcohol) and the substances we use are harmful. But only some substances are illegal.”
With a file from Saba Aziz.