Needle vending machines could be rolled out for the first time in Victoria this year as part of trial to reduce infection rates among drug users.
Yarra Drug and Health Forum has been investigating a trial as an addition to existing needle exchange programs across Melbourne. The machines are unmarked and contain one-use sterile equipment and disposal bins. Syringes are either provided free or for a small fee such as $2.
Yarra Drug and Health Forum chief executive Greg Denham said restrictive opening hours of programs left a dangerous gap in which users could not access clean equipment.
Most needle exchange programs in Melbourne operate weekdays and between business hours.
Mr Denham acknowledged the introduction could be controversial, but added that Victoria was trailing other states, including New South Wales, which introduced the machines in 1992.
”We’re always concerned about perception,” he said. ”Drug use is quite tainted by myths that [a vending machine] will increase drug use.”
But the evidence showed vending machines did not create a problem, he said. ”It addresses one,” Mr Denham said.
Department of Health spokesman Bram Alexander confirmed that there was no legal or policy barrier to prevent the machines being introduced.
”Agencies who may wish to provide this service in addition to existing needle and syringe programs can explore these possibilities,” he said.
Up to four machines could be used and areas with a known drug problem, including north Richmond, St Kilda, Footscray and Braybrook, will be the first to have a trial of the machines.
Drug Free Australia has criticised the move, saying the unsupervised machines could advertise illicit drug use to children.
”If it’s placed anywhere near schools, it’s an invitation to experiment,” executive officer Jo Baxter said.
She added that needle programs need to be handled ”professionally” and with the aim of helping users into recovery programs, not just facilitating their habit.
The machines have already been introduced to other parts of Australia, including NSW, Queensland and South Australia.
A review of the 2005-06 ACT trial revealed the existence of the machines did not reduce the number of instances of users attending needle and syringe programs, where education and referrals to support services are provided.
Mr Denham said preventing blood-borne diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C was paramount to users and public safety.
The Department of Health reported in 2009 injecting drugs was a risk factor in 79 per cent of newly acquired hepatitis C infections.
Independent health organisation Anex supports the trial in Victoria and has previously advocated the economic and health benefits of increasing access to clean syringes.
This article first appeared on ‘The Age’ on 6 January 2014.