Most Vancouver street-involved youth who experiment with injection drugs become regular drug injectors

published on July 19, 2012

BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS study shows that young females more vulnerable to addiction following experimentation

Vancouver, B.C. July 19, 2012: An alarming number of Vancouver’s street-involved youth who experiment with injection drugs for the first time quickly progress to become regular injectors, according to a new study from the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS (BC-CfE) and the Urban Health Research Initiative (UHRI).

As detailed in a study set to be presented at the upcoming International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C. on July 26, 2012, investigators followed 338 street-involved youth aged 15-25 from 2005 to 2010. Researchers found that 74% of the street youth progressed to become regular injection drug users after experimenting with drug injecting for the first time. ï_

Of those 74%, the majority (60%) transitioned to regular injecting within one month of their first injection experience and 84% transitioned within one year. A regular injector was defined in the study as someone who injects drugs an average of at least once per week.

“We would prefer youth completely avoid injection drug use, so the rate and speed at which street-involved youth progress to regular drug injecting following experimentation is very distressing,” says Dr. Kora DeBeck, lead author of the study and a post-doctoral fellow at the BC-CfE and the University of British Columbia. “In addition, we are concerned to find that female youth are more likely to become regular injection drug users than males, underscoring the vulnerability of young street-involved women and the need to develop prevention strategies based on the unique situations they face.”

Eighty-three per cent of females experimenting for the first time became regular injectors compared with 71% of males. Both female and male respondents who experienced childhood trauma were more likely to transition to regular use: 82% of youth who were victims of childhood physical abuse became regular drug injectors. Neither the users’ age nor the type of drug (heroin, cocaine or methamphetamine) being injected for the first time significantly impacted the probability of transitioning to regular intravenous drug use.

A previous BC-CfE study found that 41% of street-involved youth in Vancouver experiment with injection drug use at some point. Progression to regular and dependent drug use has been shown to interfere with development, education, and integration into society, potentially leading to homelessness, poverty and sex-trade work. These problems often persist into adulthood.

However, there are encouraging signs: BC-CfE data show a decrease in the rate of injection drug use among established adult drug injectors in the city in recent years.

“While overall rates of drug injecting have decreased substantially in recent years, this study has helped us to identify a key group that is largely contributing to the population of new injectors,” notes Dr. Evan Wood, senior author for the study. “Given the risk and harms from drug injecting among new users, there is now a clear need to expand evidence-based addiction treatments as an early intervention strategy to reduce street youth experimenting with intravenous drugs and prevent transitioning into regular drug injecting.”

Critically needed evidence-based treatments include specialized addiction medicine and psychiatric consultations to provide effective medications as well as psychosocial approaches proven to reduce rates of drug use and related harms. The BC-CfE is helping to support expanded addiction treatment in B.C.

B.C. is a global leader in urban health research and evidence-based interventions to fight HIV and AIDS. As a result of implementing the BC-CfE-pioneered Treatment as Prevention strategy, which involves widespread HIV testing and provision of highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) to people with HIV, new HIV diagnoses fell from approximately 900 cases per year in the early 1990’s to 289 in 2011. Meanwhile, B.C. has experienced a similarly dramatic decline in new HIV cases attributable to injection drug use, from more than 400 in 1996 to 50 in 2010.


About the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS
The BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS (BC-CfE) is Canada’s largest HIV/AIDS research, treatment and education facility and is internationally recognized as an innovative world leader in combating HIV/AIDS and related diseases. BC-CfE is based at St. Paul’s Hospital, Providence Health Care, a teaching hospital of the University of British Columbia. The BC-CfE works in close collaboration with key provincial stakeholders, including health authorities, health care providers, academics from other institutions, and the community to decrease the health burden of HIV and AIDS and to improve the health of British Columbians living with HIV through developing, monitoring and disseminating comprehensive research and treatment programs for HIV and related illnesses.

About the Urban Health Research Initiative
The Urban Health Research Initiative (UHRI) was established in 2007 as a program of the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver, Canada. Led by principal investigators Thomas Kerr, PhD, and Evan Wood, MD, PhD, UHRI is based on a network of studies that have been developed to help identify and understand the many factors that affect the health of urban populations, with a focus on substance use, infectious diseases, the urban environment and homelessness

For additional information, please contact:

Mahafrine Petigara
Edelman (for BC-CfE)
604-623-3007 ext. 297
[email protected]

Kevin Hollett
604-682-2344 ext 66536
[email protected]