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'Safety' For Drug Addicts

Nurses are taking a crash course this week on how to help someone through an overdose and a description of life in one of the country's most notorious slums as they prepare to open an experimental safe injection site for drug addicts.

"It's so intense right now," says Viviana Zanocco, spokeswoman for the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority, which will operate North America's first safe injection site in Vancouver's troubled Downtown Eastside.

"It's heads-down time. It is just so important for them to absorb a lot of information so they feel comfortable enough when the site opens in mid-September."

Twelve nurses were selected out of a pool of about 50 applicants, along with hand-picked peer counselors drawn from drug users and Downtown Eastside residents.

"A lot of the peer counselors are people who are known in the neighbourhood, who clients are likely to feel comfortable with," Zanocco said.

"They might not want to discuss their using habits with someone in a position of authority. There's the fear it would be turned into police even though this is a legal site."

On Wednesday, police were to give presentations to the trainees on the role of officers in the neighborhood and how they will be interacting with staff.

There will also be classes on intravenous wound care, HIV/Aids transmission, mental illness and the federally funded research study that will be conducted on the site.

The three-year study will be carried out by an independent group of researchers. Because it is expected to get a lot of attention, it was a big draw for many nurses who applied for jobs at the site.

Staff will help gather data that will be used to monitor any changes in the health of people using the site, crime rates in the city and emergency room traffic at area hospitals.

Zanocco said all the nurses who were hired are residents of British Columbia, but the health authority is keeping a tight lid on other details of the training and the employees.

They will be in an international spotlight when the safe injection site opens and Zanocco said it doesn't want to add to the pressure or distract them from important training.

"A lot of them said it was such a unique project, and they see the need for it in the community," she said, explaining what drew the nurses to the site. "They want to try something new and think it could work."

The peer counselors and nurses will keep the safe injection site, located in the heart of the city's skid row, open 18 hours a day.

A nurse will oversee the injection rooms, while a counselor will talk with people in the "chill out" room, Zanocco said.

For this assignment, nurses will have to put aside previous lessons on preaching the evils of drugs to patients. Instead, they will have to sit back and let drug users decide how much they are going to shoot into their veins in a day.

The goal of the staff will be to stop the spread of blood-borne diseases that are at epidemic levels in the neighborhood. Zanocco said one third of the injection drug users in the area have HIV and 80 to 90 percent have hepatitis C.

After years of debate and wrangling, the federal government approved funding for the experimental injection site earlier this year.

The Downtown Eastside, dubbed the poorest postal code in Canada, for years has been the scene of open drug sales and use.

A recent controversial police crackdown has suppressed some of the activity and driven it to adjacent parts of the city.

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