Machines that dispense HIV self-testing kits, clean needles and other harm reduction supplies have been installed in Atlantic Canada with plans for 100 in the next three years across the country, which continues to grapple with HIV cases and an opioid crisis.
Sean Rourke, scientist with MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions, said the project started when he was working to get the first self-testing kit for HIV approved and available in Canada. Health Canada approved the test in November 2020 and Rourke said the next step was making it available to those who need it. MAP Centre is affiliated with Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital.
Rourke said 10 per cent of people in Canada with HIV don’t know it. “That’s about 7,000 people. Those people aren’t benefiting from treatment.”
To help distribute the tests, the I’m Ready program was launched, which allows people to download an app on their phone to get the test delivered to their home or ready for pickup at locations across the country. Rourke said the program is working but it’s not reaching everyone, including those without a phone or stable housing.
That’s when the idea to launch Our Healthbox machines in communities that need it came to life. It’s a smart machine with a digital screen that works like a vending machine with free HIV and COVID-19 self-testing kits as well as clean needles, Naloxone, crack kits with safe smoking paraphernalia, condoms and other things Rourke says we take for granted like feminine hygiene products, socks and mitts. Our Healthbox will also notify clients if there is a bad drug supply.
The federally funded Our Healthbox program will also feature educational videos accessible on the machine including on how to administer Naloxone for overdoses. The people monitoring the machines have the flexibility to put other items in it, too.
Our Healthbox will launch Monday in four communities in New Brunswick. One will be going to a front-line harm reduction service in Moncton called ENSEMBLE; another will be set up in the vestibule of a United Church in Sackville, the third will be stationed at a Guardian Pharmacy in Richibucto; and the fourth will be delivered to Woodstock First Nation.
Rourke, along with researchers at St. Mike’s, plans to set up as many as 50 machines in Canada this year, and 50 more over the next three years.