An unprecedented initiative led by Vancouver Coastal Health that saw 150,000 crack cocaine smoking kits distributed in the city is expected to continue, according to the agency's chief medical health officer.
Dr. Patricia Daly said the number one recommendation of a draft report on the initiative, which included an experiment that monitored 250 crack smokers in the Downtown Eastside, is to hand out more kits.
Participants of the experiment and non-participants received the kits and Daly said supplies are still available, although increasing the number of kits and extending the experiment is a decision of Vancouver Coastal Health's harm reduction committee. The program so far has cost $100,000, according to Vancouver Coastal Health.
The committee was expected to meet this week to discuss the report which was done with assistance from the Centre for Addictions Research of B.C. at the University of Victoria.
Early results are the kits have led to less sharing of crack smoking supplies and a decrease in injuries for burns and cuts related to smoking cocaine, Daly said.
"We think those are good things," she told the Courier.
The experiment began in December 2011 with community health centres and agencies such as the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users and the Lookout Emergency Services Society supplying the kits to crack smokers.
The kits include mouth pieces, push sticks, brass screens, heat-resistant glass stems, alcohol swabs and educational materials.
Various crack smoking supplies had previously been available from agencies in the Downtown Eastside but not as one comprehensive kit.
Daly said the glass stems were key to the kits, noting there was a large outbreak of pneumococcal bacterial infection among crack users in 2006. Health officials believe the infection was related to unsanitary stems which can break and cause cuts.
In addition, a study published in October 2009 in the Canadian Medical Association Journal revealed a spike in HIV rates in the city's crack smokers.
Study researchers tracked 1,048 crack users over a nine-year period and found that 137 became HIV positive. The reason for the increase was not definitive but researchers said it could be attributed to wounds produced around the mouth when smoking crack from a pipe.
Daly said the purpose of the health agency's experiment was to establish basic information about crack users including age, gender, how often they smoke crack or share a crack pipe.
Unlike the city's 12,000 to 14,000 drug injection users who have been studied widely, there is little data on Vancouver's crack users, said Daly, noting the ultimate goal of the experiment is to stop the spread of infectious diseases and reduce the number of hospital visits by people who smoke crack.
"We've recognized in recent years that the number of people smoking crack cocaine has been increasing," she said. "It's a very marginalized group of drug users that we have not engaged with in the past."
Added Daly: "It will take a longer period of time to see if it reduces some of the disease transmission rates like HIV. We can't do that in one year."