Back off. Your reporting is a menace to public health.
That is the general thrust of the message to the Herald Sun newspaper from UnitingCare ReGen CEO Laurence Alvis, following alarmist coverage of Victorian Government plans to introduce needle and syringe vending machines in Melbourne.
In the article below, Alvis calls on the Herald Sun to drop its apparent crusade against evidence-based drug policy, and to start showing some respect for people directly affected by dependent drug use and the services who work with them.
Calling an end to misinformation, hysteria and vilification
Laurence Alvis writes:
For two days now, through inflammatory and inaccurate reporting on Victorian Government plans to introduce needle and syringe vending machines in several locations across Melbourne, the Herald Sun has made a concerted effort to misrepresent the risks associated with injecting drug use, prioritise opinion over established research evidence, and rubbish harm reduction interventions that have consistently been demonstrated to bring substantial benefits to individuals and the wider community.
Misinforming the public and undermining the work of those committed to improving public health should not be the work of a major newspaper. Vilification is not an effective base for the discussion of important community issues.
This needs to stop.
As has already been pointed out by other leading alcohol and other drug organisations in response to the Herald Sun coverage, needle and syringe vending machines have already been operating (without significant controversy) in Australia since 1992.
This is not some radical policy experiment, but a well-established, evidence-based, pragmatic response to the reality of public injecting outside of regular business hours. We commend Minister Wooldridge for sticking to the evidence in supporting this initiative.
In spite of established evidence that the operation of needle and syringe vending machines does not significantly increase the incidence of public injecting, incorrect disposal of injecting equipment, or related overdoses in surrounding areas, these issues are typically cited by opponents.
The concept of the ‘honeypot effect’ has been systematically discredited by over ten years’ research on the impact of Sydney’s Medically Supervised Injecting Centre, yet is one that has ready appeal for those wishing to promote fear within a community.
While it is important to understand the risks associated with incorrect disposal of injecting equipment, it is also important keep them in perspective and stick to the evidence.
It is natural for people to fear the possible consequences of needlestick injuries (particularly given media coverage such as that described above) the actual risks to people’s health are relatively low.
Any needlestick injury should be taken seriously and receive medical treatment, but should not be a cause for panic. As with any puncture wound there is a low level risk of tetanus, but the greatest risk is developing a bacterial infection at the site of the wound.
A fact often overlooked is that, to date, there has not been a single recorded case in Australia of blood-borne virus transmission following a needlestick injury in a public place. This is in spite of the fact that over 30 million needles and syringes are distributed each year to members of the public through Australia’s Needle and Syringe Programs.
We need a rational debate on issues related to public injecting.
This is an issue that affects communities, not only individuals. It is requires serious discussion of the impacts (and possible solutions) for all community members, not the demonisation of individuals or groups through deliberately inflammatory rhetoric.
The stigmatisation of people who inject drugs in our community only drives this behaviour further underground, increasing the likelihood of inappropriately discarded injecting equipment as people seek to evade detection.
There are many risks associated with public injecting, including for the people directly involved. Needle and syringe vending machines are one of many possible interventions as part of a comprehensive response.
It is interesting to note that, amidst all the hysteria of the recent coverage, there has been no mention of the one policy option that has been consistently demonstrated to address the concerns of community members, people who inject drugs and the services who work with them. A Medically Supervised Injecting Centre (MSIC) would have a significant impact on the incidence of public injecting in Yarra.
Although the Victorian Government does not support the introduction of a MSIC in Melbourne, it is a further policy option that could be reconsidered as part of the Government’s ongoing work to improve the delivery and effectiveness of alcohol and other drug treatment services in Victoria.
We also recommend that the Herald Sun take a more responsible approach to its presentation of issues relating to the impacts of alcohol and other drug use on individuals, families and the wider Victorian community.
ReGen’s position statement (and supporting evidence) on the Melbourne MSIC proposal are available on the agency’s website.
• UnitingCare ReGen is the lead alcohol and other drugs treatment and education agency of UnitingCare Victoria & Tasmania. We have been promoting health and reducing alcohol and other drug related harm since 1970. We support social justice and sustainable change at an individual, community and systemic level.