Northern Ireland needle exchange scheme use increases by 13%
There has been a 13% increase in the number of visits to needle and syringe exchange schemes across Northern Ireland, new figures show.
The schemes provide needles and syringes to users of intravenous drugs, such as heroin or steroids.
In 2018-19, a total of 33,992 visits were made to clinics - an increase of 13% on the previous year.
The project, which is funded by the Public Health Agency (PHA), is accessible at 21 different locations.
It is also provided by a drug outreach team in Belfast and a community addiction team in Ballymena.
The latest rise dwarfs the 3% increase that was recorded between 2016/17 and 2017/18.
The highest number of visits, and 62% of the total visits across Northern Ireland, were in the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust.
The Southern Trust recorded the lowest number of visits, 4% of Northern Ireland's total, but it experienced a 33% percent rise from the previous year, up from 1,133 visits to 1,509.
The Western Trust was the only area to record a decrease, with a 13% fall in visits compared to 2017-18.
Michael Owen, the PHA's regional lead for drugs and alcohol, said the increase in demand demonstrated "a need for the scheme" and that people were "listening to our advice to use the support available".
He said the scheme benefits "the entire community" by providing a place to dispose of injecting equipment and also "lowering the risk of diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis B and C".
"Making it harder for people to get clean needles would mean they are far more likely to share needles," he said.
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"This would hugely increase the risk of blood-borne viruses such as Hepatitis B and C or HIV amongst the injecting population, and this in turn would increase the risk to the wider population, so needle exchanges have an important role to play in helping to protect not only drug users, but also the community more generally."
Needle exchanges can be used by anyone who injects substances, such as performance enhancing steroids, tanning agents, stimulants and opioids.
Of the total visits to the needed exchanges, 69% injected opiates only, 23% injected steroids, or steroids as well as tanning agents, and 3% injected tanning agents only.