KAMLOOPS - While most people are afraid to even go near discarded IV drug needles for fear of contracting diseases, Interior Health Authority says the chance of contracting any harmful diseases is far lower than you may think.
Regional Medical Health Officer Dr. Rakel Kling says while caution is always recommended when dealing with discarded drug paraphernalia, the risk of contracting a blood-borne virus is extremely low.
"The diseases that we are most concerned about when coming in contact with a needle are Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C and HIV," Kling says. "But of course the risk only exists if these needles contain blood with these viruses in them."
Even if a syringe was used by somebody carrying one of those diseases, it isn't as simple as coming into contact with that needle and having the virus enter your system.
"You can't transmit the virus by touching the needle to intact skin," she says. "If your skin is broken for some reason or if the needle punctures your skin, that's when the risk occurs."
Kling says the most dangerous of the viruses that are often left on needles — HIV — is actually very fragile and the least likely to remain active on a needle for an extended period of time after it's used.
"It can remain inside a needle for some time, but when the needle is outside and there is dried blood on the top of the needle the virus can break down and become inactivated," she says. "While theoretically there may be a risk of HIV on a needle that has been sitting outside for some time, the chances of it dying is very high."
Hepatits B and C will also break down when exposed to the elements, though they can survive longer than HIV.
Though she wants the public to know the risks of infection are low, Kling says if you do find yourself coming in contact with a needle and you have any fear that it has punctured skin or came into contact with broken skin, you should act quickly.
"What they should do first of all is wash the affected area right away with soap and water," she says. "Then they should seek medical care from either their physician or an emergency department for further assessment."
Kling adds if you come into contact with a needle, you should dispose of it or bring it with you to a medical professional so they can get rid of it safely.
If you do choose to dispose of a needle, the Interior Health Authority has a five step process to follow that ensures the risk of picking up a virus remains low.
First, you find a rigid plastic container or a sharps container and place it on the ground next to the needle. You should not try to recap the syringe or break off the needle. Then put on some gloves and grab a set of tongs or pliers and grab the non-sharp end of the needle. You should do this with one hand, keeping a constant eye on the needle, and keeping the shard end pointing away from you.
Next, place the needle in the container or bin with the sharp end facing down. Once the conatiner is sealed thoroughly wash your hands before bring the needle to a pharmacy, a harm reduction service, or your local public health unit.
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