Overview of Harm Reduction Programs
Harm reduction is a strategy to encourage people make choices to reduce risks of long-term health problems. Long-term health problems create significant social costs for the community and deeply affect the individual and their loved ones. An example of a harm reduction strategy is the distribution of needles to reduce the risk of HIV and Hepatitis B/C infections. The rationale behind syringe exchange is that many people who are currently injecting are unwilling or unable to stop.
Intervention strategies that reduce the risks of serious blood borne infections, or other health issues, are the best possible way to help people using injection drugs who are not planning on stopping. Provision of clean syringes and needles is a simple, inexpensive way to reduce the spread of HIV and Hep C in our community. It is also an opportunity to provide education and encourage clients to make links with other community agencies. The strategy is based on a comprehensive service that includes prevention, education and risk reduction counseling.
Harm Reduction is a widely accepted approach in the scientific and medical community because it has been proven that risk reduction does work. In many communities in BC (including the Downtown East Side of Vancouver) harm reduction programs have been shown to reduce the spread of blood borne illnesses and reduce other harms created by unsafe injecting practices and high-risk sex. A harm reduction approach meets clients where they are at regardless of their lifestyle choices and weather or not they are abstinent. Harm reduction programs have an open door policy so that staff can develop an honest relationship with the person. At many points, when the person is willing to seek further help, the healthcare worker can support the individual while referring the person to programs.
The whole community benefits from a harm reduction approach. People marginalized and stigmatized are someone’s loved one, be it son, daughter, uncle, or niece. By reducing the risks of activities that impact long-term health, we extend the lives of many people. Many individuals go on to seek treatment or make new choices for living better based on good health care information, access to food and housing, and employment.
Harm Reduction saves tax dollars. The amount of money spent on harm reduction programming is negligible compared to treatment costs for HIV or Hepatitis C. A strong community supported harm reduction program will reach more people, provide programming and client involvement, and will work to build a more inclusive community. We can all be a part of supporting this vision.