Former addict who had Hepatitis C warns pharmacy closures putting users at greater risk of virus

  • Jodie Davies has been clean from drugs for more than a decade but explains why reliable and consistent access to needle exchange programmes is vital

A former addict who contracted Hepatitis C when she could not access a new needle, has warned others of the importance of safe needle exchanges.

Jodie Davies, 41, from Tonyrefail, started using drugs around the age of 13, and obtained the virus on the one occasion she did not get a clean needle.

It comes as a charity warns pharmacy closures could be putting those who rely on their needle exchange services at risk of contracting blood-borne viruses.

Pharmacists have told ITV Wales that greater workload, staff shortages and inadequate funding is making it increasingly difficult to meet demand.

Leading addiction charity Kaleidoscope has warned that the pressure pharmacies are facing is making needle exchange services - which are widely offered by pharmacies - less accessible.

Ms Davies began using drugs as a teenager but was careful to use clean equipment.

"My drug of choice was everything, from amphetamines, to heroin, crack cocaine. I don't think there was [anything] back then I didn't take," she said.

Jodie used drugs between the ages of 13 and 28.

However, on the one occasion she couldn't get hold of a new needle, Ms Davies contracted Hepatitis C.

The mum-of-four has been clean for 13 years and now supports other substance users through Kaleidoscope.

She said: "I ended up with a blood-borne virus through the one time that I didn't go and get things.

"This is why I want people to know how important the needle exchange is because people end up sharing.

"If a chemist isn't open, then there's a very good chance they'll use old ones, or they'll use someone else's.

"Old ones can cause problems with your veins, and sharing can cost them a lot more."

HIV, Hepatitis B, and Hepatitis C can all be contracted through the sharing of needles. Credit: PA Images

The number of people accessing such services dropped by more than a quarter in 2022, according to Public Health Wales figures.

Kaleidoscope chief executive Martin Blakebrough warned that pharmacy closures "would certainly impact" the number of people accessing safe needle programmes.

"Because they rely on those drugs, one of the dangers is if something isn't open they would share a needle with someone," he said.

"Sharing a needle is when you've got all those blood-borne diseases, so it is really important they know that if they go to a pharmacy that they can pick up the supplies they need and it's open at a time they can get to.

"That's really vital in rural areas. If you're going to have to travel three or four miles to pick up your needles, then the danger is you just won't make that journey."

Mr Blakebrough said needle exchange programmes play a vital role in safeguarding substance users, who "will take that substance come what may".

"It's a little bit like, you can choose if you want a beer or not, but if you're an alcoholic you will need that beer. That's similar to someone with a drug problem," he explained.

"If you're chronically addicted to something, if you don't have your drug supply the withdrawals in themselves will be pretty awful.

"So we need to make sure people have access to a safe supply."

  • 'They will take that substance come what may'

In 2022, the Welsh Government introduced a new community pharmacy framework which gives pharmacies the power and responsibility to offer more services than ever before.

Jonathan Lloyd Jones, a pharmacist in Maesteg, said: "We've taken on a great deal more of the workload in primary care.

"Resources are the big challenge at the moment. We're seeing more and more medicines are being unavailable at the price that the government are willing to reimburse for.

"That gives us a difficult challenge in community pharmacy where we would like to provide the medicines and we do in this pharmacy, but sometimes we do that at quite a considerable cost to ourselves."

132 community pharmacies are now able to prescribe certain medication without GP intervention – 19% of Wales' 704 pharmacies.

Pharmacies in Wales are now expected to offer more services than ever before.

Jonathan has been prescribing medication for around a year, and said around 95% of patients he sees do not need to be referred to other areas of the health service.

He was given protected learning time and support to train as a prescriber.

There's an ambition for every pharmacy to be prescribing by 2030.

But the Royal Pharmaceutical Society said that will be challenging without protected learning time for all pharmacies in Wales.

Alwyn Fortune, policy and engagement lead, said: "What we need as a profession and what [pharmacists] need is time to do that, they need protected learning time, so that pharmacists have the time within their working day to develop their skills, to upskill, to do the prescribing."

Health Education Improvement Wales is providing fully funded training places for 150 community pharmacists to undertake independent prescribing training in the next year.

The Welsh Government has said it is committed to supporting pharmacists, and is providing "record levels of funding" and more training opportunities "than ever before".