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UPDATE: Interior Health defends free needles program after Penticton girl steps on syringe at park

(UPDATE: June 19 @ 4 p.m.): A medical health officer at Interior Health has told NowMedia her organization is not putting the interests of drug users ahead of the rest of society by distributing free needles.

Dr. Silvina Mema was speaking after a young girl had her toe punctured when she stood on a discarded syringe at Skaha Lake Park in Penticton on Tuesday.

The child's aunt said on Wednesday that her niece had been in hospital for three hours after stepping on the needle.

She has had some blood work done already and still needs some more in two weeks and two months to ensure she does not have HIV or hepatitis C or B.

The aunt explained: "It’s very unsettling to worry about her health over the coming months while drug users get handed free needles and then discard them carelessly in children’s parks around Penticton."

She added: "Unfortunately I personally don’t think the issues surrounding used needles is going to get resolved overnight, but can we please address children’s park safety today? My suggestion would be to turn on the underground irrigation systems every 30 minutes for five minutes each night between 9pm-6am."

Dr. Mema, meanwhile, stressed that she "understands the anxiety" felt among parents about discarded needles found in the community, and said that "we need to do better" on retrieving them.

But she said the "evidence-based" program "saves lives" and prevents the spread of HIV and other viruses.

<who> Photo credit: File/contributed

"If we didn't have that program, there would be lots more HIV around – including for people who are not users," Dr. Mema said. "Babies would be being born with it."

She also said that the risk of someone being infected with HIV – or any other disease – after being pricked by one of the needles is "almost zero".

"For someone to get a disease, the blood [inside the needle] has to be fresh," she explained. "Viruses die very quickly – they are sensitive to things like heat.

"This is especially true of HIV."

There has never been a case of someone being infected with HIV from one of the program's needles, she added, and only ever "a handful" of cases in which people have got hepatitis B.

"We have an immunization program against hepatitis B," she said. "There is almost zero risk of getting it – but the anxiety is very high, I understand."

Dr. Mema also spoke of the broader societal problems that she said ultimately result in more needles being found on the streets – particularly increasing homelessness and the opioid crises.

<who> Photo credit: Interior Health

She is meeting with Penticton City Council on Thursday, she explained, as part of Interior Health's efforts to provide clarity on the situation.

In the meantime, she offered some advice for ordinary people who might be at risk of encountering needles in their communities.

"People need to go to the ER and be assessed [if they are pricked by a needle]," she said.

"But people need to talk to their kids about being careful of needles, to watch for them. They need to teach them.

"It's very unfortunate, but a reflection of our society."

She concluded: "Some people say we put the interests of the users ahead of everyone else, but that's just not true."

(UPDATE: June 19 @ 10:20 a.m.) - The City of Penticton isn't happy about the needle incident in Skaha Lake Park on Tuesday, but also wants to clear up a misconception.

"We acknowledge the unfortunate nature of the incident yesterday," says Tina Siebert, bylaw services supervisor.

"We also want to make sure it's clear that the city doesn't hand the needles out, we just collect them when we find them throughout the community."

It is Interior Health that runs a needle distribution program, one which it says is an "evidence-based strategy to improve health".

Siebert says that there are instructions on how to safely dispose of needles on the City of Penticton website, but if you're not comfortable doing that there are people that can come and dispose of it for you.

"If they see them and they're not prepared to dispose of them safely themselves, then we have staff and our bylaw department and our parks clean team department and they would come and clean up the needles."

<who>Photo Credit: City of Penticton

The City has also installed around 20 sharps container boxes around Penticton with hopes that if the public does see a needle, they'll safely dispose it into the bin to avoid situations like the one that sent Emma to the hospital.

If you're not near one of those containers, however, Siebert says the disposal process isn't a difficult one.

"You don't have to have a whole bunch of supplies, it's pretty simplistic if you're doing it safely," she explained. "You can seal it into a pop bottle with a lid if you don't have a container, there are safe ways to go about it without having specific supplies."

She admits that the needles are a safety concern and the City wants to make sure any sharp is being disposed of in a safe manner.

Interior Health, meanwhile, provided links to its safe needle disposal guidelines and a useful resource with information about dealing with needle injuries.

(Original story: June 18 @ 5:30 p.m.) - A young child was taken to the emergency room in Penticton this afternoon after standing on a needle while playing at Skaha Lake Park, her aunt has said.

Danni Hyde said her niece, Emma, is still in hospital and does not know her current condition.

She said the puncture wound was a “small dot” on her big toe.

<who> Photo credit: Contributed

It was brought to Hyde’s attention by her son, Hudson, who came up to her in the park to tell her that Emma’s foot was hurting.

He was carrying a needle cap, Hyde explained. It was around 1:30 p.m.

She said she went “ghost white” after seeing the object.

Her remarkably efficient response – after briefly “screaming and swearing” in frustration – began with her running the kids to the washroom to clean their hands.

<who> Photo credit: Contributed

She then rushed them to her first-aid kit, applied iodine to the puncture wound and used an isopropyl wipe to clean away bacteria.

Before packing them up for the hospital ride, she warned other parents in the park about what had happened.

Emma then went to the ER with her mother.

Hyde has since asked the City and Interior Health to “please educate our parents as to the proper protocol WHEN our children get pricked with the free needles you are handing out to users”.

She added: “No judgements, just asking for solutions to keep our kids safe.”

NowMedia has put in requests for more information.

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