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Health Minister backs more needle exchanges

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Health Minister backs more needle exchanges
A needle exchange centre in Malmö. Photo: TT
08:01 CET+01:00
Sweden’s Health Minister has backed growing calls for more state-funded needle exchanges for drug addicts.
Gabriel Wikström is lobbing to change rules that mean it is up to municipal (regional) councils to decide whether or not to offer safe needle swapping programmes, which can stop towns and cities from introducing the projects.
 
The move comes just weeks after Sweden’s Public Health Agency (Folkhälsomyndigheten) called for more syringe and needle exchanges across the country to reduce the risk of addicts contracting hepatitis C and HIV. 
 
Only six cities in Sweden currently offer needle exchanges: Stockholm, Malmo, Lund, Helsingborg, Kalmar and Kristianstad. 
 
Sweden’s Public Health Agency is also calling for improved counselling, drug testing and vaccination services alongside the exchange programmes.

“When you build up a trusting relationship and demonstrate the equal right to good health care, this increases the chances that those people may also get…help to manage or eventually to emerge from a drug addiction” said Johan Carlson, Director General of Sweden’s Public Health Agency in a statement last month.

On Monday, Gabriel Wikström visited the St George’s needle exchange in Stockholm alongside Left Party member of parliament Karin Rågsjö who has also been lobbying for a change in the law to allow more towns and cities to be able to introduce their own safety programmes, without needing the permission of municipal councils.

At St Georges around 70 to 75 people a day visit to swap their syringes, with many also seeking medical help.
 
Fredrik Lindström, head nurse at the unit told Aftonbladet: "A very important aspect is obviously to reduce the spread of infection, especially when it comes to HIV. But this is so much more than just exchanging needles. We are also trying to motivate a different behavior. Some of those we meet do not have contact with other authorities. Then we become the linking body."

Similar schemes are already commonplace in many other European countries. Italy has the most - more than 300,000 - with the United Kingdom, Germany and France also offering a large number of programmes. 

In Copenhagen, drug addicts can shoot up without fear of prosecution in legal injection rooms in the city, which provide sterile equipment.

Approximately 8,000 people inject drugs in Sweden, according to national statistics body Statistics Sweden. The median age for starting to take drugs among that group is 14 or 15.

Around 800 people a year currently contract Hepititus virus in Sweden as a result of dirty equipment.

Wikström told Aftonbladet that while he was lobbying hard for a change in the rules to help more towns and cities introduce needle swap programmes to happen as soon as possible, it remained unclear how long this would take.

 
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