All people deserve access to the health services they need. It is the responsibility of governments (at all levels), health care providers, social service providers, and civil society to work together to ensure the health and safety of all people and communities, including people who use drugs.
The opioid crisis and the overdose epidemic we are currently facing in Canada are symptoms of marginalization, lack of access to appropriate services, and lack of political will due to stigma and discrimination. People who use drugs are dying because of a lack of access to health care and support. Among other concerns, the stigma drug users face fuels HIV transmission by slowing down critical responses to public health issues.
What is happening in Canada is a public health emergency. The right to health requires services that are tailored to meet the health needs of different groups of rights-holders within a population. People who use drugs are one of those groups whose specific needs must be addressed. Multiple forms of systemic discrimination make it harder for drug users to gain access to health care. When and where health care is available, it is often stigmatized and its quality often compromised.
The 26th emergency overdose site was launched last week in Ottawa. Led by community members and people who use drugs, overdose prevention sites are a harm reduction-based health service that provide immediate health interventions proven to prevent fatalities from overdose. Those most affected are leading the way and cannot wait any longer. Overdose prevention sites will continue to pop up and provide an immediate response in this emergency—saving lives, making our communities safer, stronger and healthier and modeling what is possible when people work in solidarity with their neighbours.
The tools and strategies required to improve the health and lives of people who use drugs are well known and readily available. The overwhelming body of evidence on the effectiveness of harm reduction (including safe injections sites and needle exchange programs in prisons and other closed settings) is the basis for a comprehensive package of interventions recommended to prevent the spread of HIV and reduce other harms associated with drug use by the World Health Organization, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS.
Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights stands strong in our support for the crucial harm reduction work that is happening all over Canada. As a national organization committed to upholding sexual and reproductive health and rights, we view these initiatives as crucial interventions in an overall strategy to address HIV and other sexually transmitted and blood borne infections and in saving lives and making communities safer for all.
We call on all levels of government and all stakeholders to ensure they facilitate (in all ways they can) this rapid, evidence-based response that addresses the devastating impacts of the criminalization of drugs and the opioid crisis. We need our leaders to step up and not stand in the way of those most affected by this crisis. Steadfast support for these important harm reduction initiatives is needed.