Investigating syringe-sharing among at-risk youth, and analyzing coverage of and access to youth-targeted needle exchange programs

Street youth often carry a heavy burden: trauma, sexual and physical violence, lack of education, homelessness, and mental illness all contribute to the difficulties that many young street people face. Studies have shown that street youth are also one of the groups at most risk of progressing from non-injection drug use to injection drug use, including crystal methamphetamine use. Because they often engage in high-risk sexual activities and drug use, street youth are also particularly susceptible to being infected with and spreading blood-borne diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C. Young women in this group, some of whom are involved in the sex trade, are at particularly high risk of contracting these diseases. Health authorities in Vancouver have recognized this problem and responded by expanding and decentralizing needle exchange programs that target street youth. However, little is currently known about the effect that these programs have had on the risk behaviours and drug use patterns of street-based youth. Given that street youth who inject are often hard to reach, there are concerns that this population may not have adequate access to critical HIV prevention programs such as needle exchange. Daniel Werb is investigating the factors associated with syringe sharing among street youth, such as crystal methamphetamine use, unstable housing, involvement in sex trade work, historical sexual abuse, and depression. He will also investigate the reach of youth-oriented needle exchange programs in Vancouver and determine their effectiveness in harm reduction. Werb’s findings will help health authorities understand this at-risk population better, and contribute to the development of effective programs that support the health of street youth who inject drugs.