Monday, September 13, 2004

'Safe' Injection Site Nurse Wins International Award

Rogue safe injection site nurse honoured with international award
Jeremy Hainsworth
Canadian Press
Sunday, September 12, 2004

VANCOUVER - The nurse who set up an unauthorized safe injection site for intravenous drug users on Vancouver's seedy Downtown Eastside has been honored with an international human rights award.
Megan Oleson and Pivot Legal Society, also of Vancouver, are the joint Canadian recipients of the 2004 Awards for Action on HIV/AIDS and Human Rights presented by the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network and the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
Several months prior to the September 2003 opening of a Health Canada-approved safe injection site, Oleson opened an unauthorized site which drew police scrutiny.
"Vancouver had waited for years for a safe injection site to finally open," Thomas Kerr, the network's Vancouver-based director of health policy and research, said in a news release. "In the face of further delays, Megan acted when others continued to drag their feet."
At the storefront site, Oleson supervised injections, taught drug users safe practices and referred users to services they required. The site operated for about six months.
Pivot Legal Society is a non-profit group which focuses primarily on legal and human rights issues faced by sex workers, drug users and the homeless in the same neighbourhood.
"Pivot's brave and tireless work has not only helped to empower the most marginalized drug users in British Columbia," said Joanne Csete, director of Human Rights Watch's HIV/AIDS program.
"It has also forced both city and provincial authorities to grapple more seriously than ever with police harassment and due-process violations against drug users and sex trade workers."
Ann Livingston, a spokeswoman for the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, said Oleson, a registered nurse, and Pivot lawyer John Richardson are examples to their professions.
The users' group helped fund the injection site.
"(Oleson) showed incredible courage," Livingston said. "An RN can behave in a socially responsible manner even when they're being persecuted.
"I have challenges working with her," Livingston added. "I'm always trying to get her to tone down so we don't lose our funding."
Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network executive director Ralf Jurgens said human rights abuses in Canada and internationally continue to fuel the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
"In Canada, governments have been too slow at introducing effective measures to reduce the spread of HIV and hepatitis C infection among injection drug users, such as safe injection facilities," Jurgens said.
"Instead, we continue to rely too much on costly and often ineffective law enforcement measures."
Human Rights Watch has been critical of the Vancouver police department for its handling of issues on the Downtown Eastside, one of North America's most poverty-stricken and drug-infested neighbourhoods.
When police launched a crackdown in April 2003, the group released a report saying the crackdown had driven injection-drug users away from services there to help them.
That, the group said, raised fears of increased spread of HIV in an area already ravaged by the disease.
The official safe injection site opened in September 2003 as part of Vancouver's Four Pillars approach to drug use harm reduction - prevention, harm reduction, treatment and enforcement.
Livingston said the drug users' network is now working with Oleson on a safe inhalation site for crack cocaine users.
The awards were presented in Montreal on Friday.

© The Canadian Press 2004