Lethbridge kids tested for HIV after touching needles found in playgrounds

Parents in Lethbridge, Alta., say there's growing concern over used needles in the community, with children being forced to undergo repeated blood tests to rule out infections such as HIV or hepatitis after encountering used syringes in places like school playgrounds.

Posts on social media over the past few months have shown needles found in Lethbridge playgrounds, with potentially dangerous surfaces exposed to children.

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Lethbridge residents Roisin Gibb and Lori Fowler must take their young children to repeated medical appointments for the next several months, after their sons had separate encounters with needles.

"He found a needle outside his kindergarten classroom," said Gibb, whose son is six years old.

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Gibb's son brought the needle home after playing with it. After realizing what it was, Gibb contacted public health officials who said the kindergarten student needed to undergo HIV and hepatitis testing to make sure he wasn't exposed.

Those tests require repeated blood tests, along with extra immunizations, over the course of a year.

'He is terrified'

Fowler's three-year-old son stepped on a needle outside their home at the end of June, and is undergoing the same range of blood tests and immunizations as Gibb's son.

"He is terrified. He's only three, he doesn't understand why picking up a piece of garbage has resulted in all of these consequences," said Fowler.

Roisin Gibb/Supplied

Fowler said her family will be leaving Lethbridge in the coming months and part of the reason is that she feels a rural community will be safer.

For now, Fowler thoroughly checks every playground and park for possible needle debris before allowing her children to play.

"The hardest part is seeing my other two children who are smaller and having to constantly worry when we go out our front door. Is there another needle on our front lawn? Is there needles as we go down the street for a bike ride?" said Fowler.

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"We feel frustrated that we are supposed to accept this as our new norm," said Gibb, who said she believes the distribution of needles should be halted in Lethbridge as a solution.

Fowler is more specific in her blame. The 13-year Lethbridge resident said a local safe consumption site has "been the majority of the problem."

Problem worse without consumption site: Mayor

A supervised consumption site has been open in the southern Alberta city since February 2018, and some are blaming it for instances of needle debris in other parts of the city. However city officials say the opposite is true.

"Since the supervised consumption site opened at the end of February, diverting that much usage inside a facility is minimizing the risk," said Lethbridge Mayor Chris Spearman.

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"If we didn't have a supervised consumption site in our city, we would have 13 to 15 thousand more uses happening out in the community and I believe we would have that much more needle debris out in the community," said Spearman.

Although it seems like things are bad right now, they could be much worse. - Stacey Bourque,  executive director of ARCHES

Both Lethbridge's safe consumption site and the city's harm reduction supply distribution are run bu AIDS Outreach Community Harm Reduction Education & Support Society (ARCHES).

"Although it seems like things are bad right now, they could be much worse," said ARCHES executive director Stacey Bourque.

Officials with ARCHES say they are actually distributing thousands fewer syringes this year versus last, with 36,000 needles handed out in August 2017 compared to 12,800 in August 2018.

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"Now that we have a site, now that we have a facility, it's very visible," said Bourque. "We didn't cause the problem. We're responding to an existing problem. We didn't cause this drug crisis."

Bourque also said ARCHES has been safely recovering more syringes at their facilities than they hand out, so they are actively reducing the number of needles on the street.

City calls on province to help

The City of Lethbridge has funded teams to help clean up needles, along with a "needle hotline" to report any found syringes. 

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However, Mayor Spearman said the province is a key partner in solving the problem, and that Lethbridge needs additional rehabilitation and treatment centres.

According to the mayor, there is only so much the municipality can to do address drug problems in the city.

"We simply cannot control the behaviour of people who are drug addicts, people who are suffering from mental health issues, things like FASD [fetal alcohol spectrum disorder]," said Spearman. "Their behaviour is unpredictable."