Canadian Health Minister Tony Clement's repudiation last week of harm reduction strategies for treating drug addicts was "pretty embarrassing," as one Ottawa AIDS activist described the incident.
Mr Clement (right), repeating one of his favourite talking points, declared:
"Allowing and/or encouraging people to inject heroin into their veins is not harm reduction, it is the opposite... We believe it is a form of harm addition."Of course, that Mr Clement is opposed to harm reduction is no secret. (He asked Justice Minister Rob Nicholson to appeal a decision by a British Columbia judge that prevents the federal government from shutting down Vancouver's safe-injection site, Insite.)
What was surprising and particularly embarrassing about his announcement last week wasn't really the content of his comments so much as their timing: Mr Clement made his anti-harm reduction claim during an event promoting a World Health Organization guide on fighting HIV and AIDS, at the International AIDS Conference in Mexico City. That guide endorses safe-injection sites as a WHO recommendation.
"It's not my job to kowtow to orthodoxy,” he said, according to The Globe and Mail. “I believe I'm on the side of compassion and on the side of the angels."
His comments weren't just embarrassing to Canadian activists , who are familiar with his philosophy, but also to World Health Organization officials, reported Globe and Mail columnist André Picard. "Clement's Insite attack leaves WHO red-faced," read the headline, which was picked up on by the Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, which provided international news coverage for the conference.
The Globe and Mail also carried a quote from Insite spokesperson Mark Townsend, who called Mr Clement's comments "depressing silliness." Liberal Member of Parliament and physician Carolyn Bennett said Mr Clement had embarrassed Canada. To get a taste of what Canadians think, just check out the hundreds of comments appended to the Globe and Mail's article online.
"What is it about safe injection sites that Clement cannot get his mind around?" wondered the Vancouver Sun's Barbara Yaffe:
"He understands and endorses the need for clean needles. The sites merely add a desk and chair, and health-care oversight to the mix.
"What's more, Clement is proving himself a first-class hypocrite. The health minister doesn't want addicts shooting up; he wants them off drugs. But despite a year of pleas, to date the feds haven't responded to a request for $2 million in capital funding from Vancouver's Central City Foundation. The group is establishing a long-term residential drug treatment centre for young people.
"B.C.'s government has pledged $2.4 million annually for The Crossing at Keremeos, to begin accepting residents in January. So far the feds have contributed zip.
"It's time for Clement to put his money where his mouth is."
In other news from the International AIDS Conference:
On Wednesday, August 6, the Canadian AIDS Society issued a press release accusing the government of failing to keep its commitment on HIV/AIDS funding and calculating the shortfall in promised money at a whopping $11.8 million.
The next day, the following comment from Mr Clement appeared in the Calgary Sun: Canada is a world leader on AIDS.
In his defence, Canada is indeed the largest contributor in the world to the WHO's AIDS initiatives (though its total commitments pale in comparison to those of the United States), and Mr Clement just announced a further $45 million in southern Africa, primarily Mozambique and South Africa.
But Mr Clement's record is nevertheless tainted by his refusal to accept that harm reduction is a necessary method of protecting drug addicts from contracting diseases like HIV, Canadian AIDS Society executive director Monique Doolittle-Romas said in her August 6 release:
"How can any credibility be given to any funding pledge by the Canadian government when it hasn't even honoured long-standing domestic commitments?"Photo: Public Health Agency of Canada