12 December 2004

Injecting rooms need support from experts, not alarmist doubts.

The case for piloting supervised injecting centres in the United Kingdom is strong. Wright NMJ, Tompkins CNE. BMJ 2004 328:100-102

Dear Colleagues,

With continuing high rates of drug related deaths in the UK, the BMJ is
right to again give prominence to the issue. The report by Wright and
Tompkins [ref 1] clearly demonstrates that there are new and promising
ways to address the current UK epidemic of overdose deaths from street
drugs, including medically supervised injecting facilities. Overseas
experience with injecting centres over 15 years has been uniformly
positive. Over one million injections occur each year in such centres
where deaths and serious complications almost unknown. Nearly all such
injections would otherwise take place in less savoury and thus less safe
environs. Such services also bring large number of addicts into contact
with health care workers, some for the fist time.

It is thus disappointing that in their following commentary [ref 2],
rather than unequivocally supporting such moves, Strang and Fortson
raise the canard of the differences between prescribed heroin for
dependency and injecting facilities (which they pejoratively call
'fixing rooms').

As a leading dependency expert, Strang knows the reassuring reports of
such centres in Europe, Australia and, most recently, Canada. The
concept has worked effectively elsewhere [ref 3], including apparently
unofficial experience in London. Strang and Fortson give no realistic
alternative strategy for the UK's high rates of overdose, HIV and
hepatitis C. They write that heroin prescription would only ever be a
'tertiary service', while injecting rooms a primary one.

These authors compare injecting centres to pubs, adding to the confusion
they are trying to address. Licensed premises, like Swiss heroin
prescription trials, supply the patrons' drug of choice in a safe
environment, while injecting centres only provide the supervised
environment for consumption of illicit drugs. Injecting centres are
perhaps more like patrolled beaches where people do risky, even
foolhardy things, while professional life-guards move into action if
needed in a non-judgemental manner.

Strang and co-author cannot know how insensitive their petty
reservations on injecting rooms must sound to grieving relatives when
every overdose death is potentially preventable. Rather than refuting
them, these authors raise old issues such as injecting rooms 'fostering
.. more .. drug use', drug dealing and operational protocols after over
a decade of positive experience. Their perfunctory dealing with 'harm
reduction' in the first sentence belies its being the foundation of good
medical and public health practice since the time of Hippocrates. It is
also official government health policy in some countries and has
prevented an HIV epidemic in Australia and Hong Kong.

Like heroin prescription, on current evidence we probably need a small
number of injecting rooms in drug 'hot-spots', as well as simultaneous
improved access to traditional drug treatments, detox services, harm
reduction measures and education.

Yours faithfully,

Andrew Byrne ..


[1] Wright NMJ, Tompkins CNE. Supervised injecting centres. BMJ (2004)

[2] Strang J, Fortson R. Supervised fixing rooms, supervised injectable
maintenance clinics-understanding the difference. BMJ (2004) 328:102-103

[3] Burton, B. Supervised drug injecting room trial considered a
success. BMJ (2003) 327:122

BMJ 2004 328:100-102 (10 January)

Wright NMJ, Tompkins CNE.

The case for piloting supervised injecting centres in the United Kingdom
is strong.

Medically supervised injecting centres are "legally sanctioned and
supervised facilities designed to reduce the health and public order
problems associated with illegal injection drug use." Their purpose is
to enable the consumption of pre-obtained drugs under hygienic, low risk
conditions. They differ from illegal "shooting galleries," where
users pay to inject on site. Worldwide, medically supervised injecting
centres (also referred to as health rooms, supervised injecting rooms,
drug consumption rooms, and safer injecting rooms or facilities) are
receiving renewed attention. In 2001, the first medically supervised
injecting centre in recent times was opened in Sydney, Australia.

BMJ 2004 328:102-103 (10 January)
Strang J, Fortson R.

Supervised fixing rooms, supervised injectable maintenance
Clinics - understanding the difference.

John Strang (psychiatrist), Rudi Fortson (barrister)

Harm reduction policies and practices (where anything goes, if it
actually reduces harm) have fundamentally altered our approach to the
drugs problem. Two innovations were recently considered by the Home
Affairs Select Committee-supervised injecting centres and supervised
injectable maintenance clinics-but with unhelpful confusion between the
two. They have different target populations, potential benefits, and
legal obstacles.