People who inject drugs

People who inject drugs (PWID) are among the most marginalised and disadvantaged drug users. They experience multiple negative health consequences including higher risk of fatal overdoses and are disproportionately affected by blood-borne infectious diseases (such as HIV and hepatitis C) (UNODC 2020). In 2018 it was estimated that there were 11.3 million people worldwide who injected drugs (UNODC 2020).

Prevalence of drug injection

In Australia, a low proportion of the general population report injecting drugs. Information on data sources referred to in this section are in Box PWID1. The National Drug Strategy Household Survey (NDSHS) found that in 2019, 1.5% of the population aged 14 and over had injected a drug in their lifetime (Table S2.31), with 0.3% having injected a drug in the past year (both stable from 2016) (Table S2.32, Figure PWID1). Males who were aged 14 and over were more likely to have recently injected drugs (in the past year) than their female counterparts (2.2% compared to 0.9%) (AIHW 2020).

Box PWID1: Data sources examining drug use and harms among PWID 

As PWID are likely to be underrepresented as respondents of the NDSHS, this section will largely draw upon data from other sources that are specifically targeted at PWID including the Illicit Drug Reporting System (IDRS) coordinated by the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC) and the Australian Needle and Syringe Program Survey (ANSPS) coordinated by the Kirby Institute.

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Illicit drugs

Heroin and methamphetamine are the most commonly injected drugs in Australia and are often cited as preferred drugs among PWID (Heard et al. 2019; Peacock et al. 2019).

Use of heroin has decreased over time, with estimates from the 2019 Illicit Drug Reporting System (IDRS) showing that recent (past 6 month) use of heroin had fallen from 79% in 2000 to 55% in 2019. Conversely, recent use of methamphetamine increased from 63% to 78% over the same period (Table S2.54; Peacock et al. 2019).

Drug most often injected

Estimates from the 2019 IDRS showed that, among PWID:

  •  methamphetamine (42%) and heroin (40%) were the drugs most often injected in the last month.
  • 76% had consumed crystal methamphetamine in the preceding 6 months, with injection as the main route of administration for 97% of those consumers
  • just over half (55%) reported using heroin in the preceding 6 months (Table S2.54)
  • 36% of recent heroin consumers reported using heroin daily (Peacock et al. 2019).

Last drug injected

Injecting drug use among PWID is often assessed by asking people to report the drug that they most recently injected (last drug injected). Data from the 2014–2018 Australian Needle Syringe Program Survey showed that heroin and methamphetamine are the most common last drugs injected (Figure PWID2).

  • In 2018, methamphetamine (48%) was the most commonly reported last drug injected nationally and across most jurisdictions (ranging from 35–69%). This figure has increased from 33% in 2014 (Heard et al. 2019).
  • Heroin (26%) was the second most commonly reported last injected drug in 2018. The proportion of respondents who reported last injecting heroin decreased from 31% in 2014 (Heard et al. 2019).
  • Pharmaceutical opioids (including morphine, oxycodone and fentanyl) were the third most commonly reported class of drugs last injected. However, prevalence declined significantly from 11% in 2014 to 7% in 2018 (Heard et al. 2019) (Table S3.61).

Other drugs that are often reported as the last drug injected include performance and image enhancing drugs (PIEDs; such as steroids, peptides or hormones) (Table S3.61). 

Other frequently used drugs

Use of cannabis among PWID is also common. The 2019 IDRS showed that:

  • almost three-quarters (74%) of PWID had used cannabis in the last 6 months
  • in all jurisdictions except NSW, the percent of participants who reported using cannabis in the previous 6 months has declined during the monitoring period (Peacock et al. 2019).

PWID also consume pharmaceutical drugs, particularly prescription opioids, at higher rates than the general population (Peacock et al. 2019). This likely reflects the practice of substituting pharmaceutical drugs for illicit drugs, such as heroin. Data from the 2019 IDRS showed that respondents commonly reported the non-prescribed use of the following drugs in the preceding 6 months (Peacock et al. 2019):

  • Morphine (18%).
  • Oxycodone (15%).
  • Buprenorphine (5%) and buprenorphine-naloxone film (12%).
  • Fentanyl (9%).

Cocaine use is infrequently reported among people who inject drugs, with only 13% reporting use at least once in the last 6 months (Peacock et al. 2019).

Health and harms

Injecting drug use is a major risk factor for transmitting blood-borne viruses, including HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C. Needle and syringe sharing among people who inject drugs is partly responsible for transmitting infection, although unsafe sexual behaviours also play a role (AIHW 2012).

Burden of disease and injury

Unsafe injecting practices were responsible for 0.5% of the total burden of disease and injuries in 2015 (AIHW 2019).

Unsafe injecting practices are linked to Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, HIV/AIDS, liver cancer and chronic liver disease. Liver cancer and chronic liver disease are the long-term consequences of contracting hepatitis B and hepatitis C infection. Acute hepatitis C and B were responsible for 75% and 37% of burden (respectively) (AIHW 2019). Chronic liver disease and liver cancer were each responsible for 24% of the burden due to unsafe injecting practices (AIHW 2019).

Injecting risk behaviours

Data from the Australian NSP survey provides some evidence of the risk of harms related to injecting drug use in persons who regularly inject drugs in Australia:

  • the proportion of respondents reporting recent reuse of needles and syringes (including the reuse of one’s own syringes) increased from 21% in 2014 to 26% in 2018
  • the proportion of respondents reporting receptive sharing of needles and syringes in the last month increased, from 16% in 2014 to 18% in 2018 (Heard et al. 2019).

Data from the Illicit Drug Reporting System (IDRS) provides additional evidence of risks for harms, including:

  • 11% of participants of the 2019 IDRS reporting lending a needle to someone after they had used it, and 8% reported borrowing a needle after someone else had used it. Re-use of their own needle was reported by 44% of IDRS participants.
  • Past month sharing of injecting equipment such as filters, water and mixing containers (e.g. spoons) was reported by 5% of participants, a significant decrease from 2018 (19%) and a decline from a high of 51% in 2000 (Peacock et al. 2019) (Table S3.63) (Figure PWID3).
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Injection-related health problems

In 2019, the IDRS found that 45% of participants in the national sample had experienced an injection-related health problem in the month preceding interview. Of those who commented (n=865):

  • 22% reported that they had experienced a ‘dirty hit’ (i.e. a hit that made them feel sick), in the month preceding interview
  • 20% experienced nerve damage
  • 15% experienced an artery injection (Peacock et al. 2019) (Table S3.64).

The ANSPS found that HIV antibody prevalence is low and stable nationally (1.4% to 2.1% between 2014 and 2018) (Table S3.65). Some populations of PWID are at greater risk of HIV than others.

  • Nationally, across all survey years except 2012, HIV antibody prevalence was consistently higher among male respondents than among female respondents (Figure PWID4). HIV antibody prevalence has also been consistently higher among homosexual male respondents than among bisexual and heterosexual male respondents.
  • Between 2014 and 2018, HIV prevalence was also higher among men who reported methamphetamine as the last drug injected (3.0% in 2018) compared to men who reported last injecting other drugs (2.4% in 2018; Heard et al. 2019).  Between 2014 and 2017, HIV prevalence was higher among men who reported sex work in the month preceding the survey compared to men who did not report sex work. However, in 2018, there was no difference in HIV prevalence between men who reported recent sex work and men who did not (Heard et al. 2019).
  • Prevalence of HIV infection among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander respondents was stable between 2014 (2%) and 2018 (3.6%) (Heard et al. 2019). 
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  • According to the ANSPS, hepatitis C is more common than HIV among PWID. For the second consecutive year, less than half (45%) of respondents had been exposed to hepatitis C in 2018. This represents a significant decline from 2014 (54%) and is the lowest level since data were collected in 1995. Hepatitis C prevalence of less than 50% has only occurred at one other time since the ANSPS commenced in 1995, with a reported prevalence of 49% in 1998 (Table S3.66).
  • HCV antibody prevalence was higher among older respondents and those with longer injection histories.
  • Prevalence of HCV was also higher among respondents reporting heroin or other opioids as the last drug injected compared to respondents who last injected methamphetamine.
  • HCV antibody prevalence was also consistently higher among respondents who reported imprisonment in the year preceding survey completion compared to those who had not been incarcerated and among respondents who reported receptive syringe sharing in the last month compared to respondents who did not report receptive syringe sharing (Heard et al. 2019).
  • The proportion of respondents reporting recent HCV treatment in the last 12 months increased significantly from 1% in 2014 to 39% in 2018 (Heard et al. 2019).

Policy context

Policy support

The 2019 NDSHS showed that most people support measures to reduce problems associated with injecting drugs. About two-thirds of the population aged 14 and over supported rapid detoxification therapy (69%), methadone/buprenorphine maintenance programs (67%), needle and syringe programs (64%), treatment with drugs other than methadone (66%) and the use of naltrexone (65%), which is a medication that blocks the effect of opioids such as heroin. In addition:

  • a trial of prescribed heroin received the least support (33%)
  • apart from a trial of prescribed heroin, use of naltrexone, and availability of take-home naloxone, higher proportions of females than males supported measures aimed at reducing problems associated with injecting drug use
  • support for needle and syringe programs (90%), use of naltrexone (83%), availability of take-home naloxone (83%), and a trial of prescribed heroin (60%) was particularly high among recent injecting drug users compared with the general population (Table S3.67)
  • in 2019, there were declines in the support for needle and syringe programs (from 67% in 2016 to 64%) and a trial of prescribed heroin (from 35% to 33%) (Table S3.68).

Needle and syringe programs

All Australian states and territories operate needle syringe programs (NSPs), providing a range of services to PWID (Heard et al. 2019). See Harm reduction: Minimising risky behaviours.

According to the IDRS, in 2017, NSPs were by far the most common source of needles and syringes in the preceding 6 months (94%), followed by NSP vending machines (19%). Chemists were used by 16% of participants nationally (Karlsson & Burns 2018) (Table S3.69). This is supported by the findings of the 2019 NDSHS that NSPs were the most commonly reported source (39%), followed by chemists (34%) (AIHW 2020) (Table S3.70). This is likely to reflect the different sampling of the 2 surveys whereby the NDSHS is targeted at the general population, while the IDRS accesses PWID.

Medically Supervised Injecting Centres

Medically supervised injecting centres (MSIC) are places where people can use and inject drugs under the supervision of registered nurses, counsellors and health education professionals. This service aims to prevent injury and death by being present when someone injects in order to provide immediate medical assistance as required. Kings Cross in Sydney has been home to an MSIC since 2001 (Uniting 2017), and a second opened in Richmond, Victoria in July 2018.

References

AIHW (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare) 2012. Australia’s health 2010. Australia’s health series no. 12. Cat. no. AUS 122. Canberra: AIHW.

AIHW 2019. Australian burden of disease study: Impact and causes of illness and death in Australia 2015. Series no.19. BOD 22. Canberra: AIHW. Viewed 13 June 2019.

AIHW 2020. National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2019. Drug Statistics series no. 32. Cat. no. PHE 270. Canberra: AIHW. Viewed 21 July 2020.

Dolan K, MacDonald M, Silins E & Topp L 2005. Needle and syringe programs: a review of the evidence. Canberra: Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing. Viewed 25 January 2018.

Heard S, Iversen J, Geddes L & Maher L 2019. Australian Needle Syringe Program Survey National Data Report 2014–2018: Prevalence of HIV, HCV and injecting and sexual behaviour among NSP attendees. Sydney: Kirby Institute, UNSW.

Heard S, Iversen J, Kwon JA & Maher L 2018. Needle Syringe Program National Minimum Data Collection Report 2018. Sydney: Kirby Institute. Viewed 22 August 2019.

Karlsson A & Burns L 2018. Australian Drug Trends 2017. Findings from the Illicit Drug Reporting System (IDRS). Australian Drug Trend Series. No. 181. Sydney, National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, UNSW Australia.

Peacock A, Uporova J, Karlsson A, Gibbs D, Swanton R, Kelly G, Price O, Bruno R, Dietze P, Lenton S, Degenhardt L & Farrell M 2019. Australian Drug Trends 2019: Key findings from the National Illicit Drug Reporting System Interviews. Sydney, National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, UNSW Australia.

United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC) 2020. World Drug Report 2020. Vienna: UNODC. Viewed 28 July 2020.

Uniting 2017. PDF DownloadUniting Medically Supervised Injecting Centre: get to know our story. Viewed 25 January 2018.