The NHS has bought a mobile needle exchange for heroin addicts to use in a bid to halt an “uncontained HIV outbreak” in Scotland’s largest city.

It is estimated that one-in-five people who inject drugs in public places in Glasgow are now infected with the incurable virus that attacks the immune system and can lead to Aids.

NHS figures obtained by the Sunday Herald show there has been 117 new HIV cases among an estimated 400 to 500 people who inject drugs publicly in Glasgow since 2015.

Access to clean needles can prevent transmission, but Scotland’s busiest needle exchange in Glasgow Central Station – which operated between 7am and midnight –was closed in September last year by Network Rail, which manages the transport hub, after a drug user died of an overdose in the public toilets.

NHS figures show a sharp fall in the number of clean needles issued to drug users in Glasgow after the facility closed.

The NHS has now invested £50,000 in a “mobile injecting equipment van” which will also offer HIV tests to heroin addicts.

Carole Hunter, NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde’s lead addictions pharmacist, said: “There is an HIV outbreak. We’re doing everything we possibly can to contain that.

“We’ve tried to promote all of the other services and equipped outreach services with clean equipment, but we’re also looking at a mobile injecting equipment van that we would be able to have in the area from half past six until ten, which is the time period we’ve lost [after the closure of the Glasgow Central exchange]."

It is hoped the mobile exchange will be on the streets of Glasgow next month.

But there is still anger about Network Rail’s decision to close the Central Station one in the face of pleas to retain it from the NHS, the police, the Scottish Drugs Forum and Scottish Government ministers.

Hunter said: “They should never have closed it. They closed it because there was an overdose death in the toilet. But they didn’t want it open it in the first place. We had to fight for it to go in."

The exchange provided tens of thousands of sets of clean injecting equipment between July 2016 and the closure in September 2017.

Figures show a 16 per cent fall in the number of needles and syringes provided to addicts in Glasgow in the four months after closure.

Hunter added: “The reason for opening the needle exchange was because there was a gap in out of hours provision. And it very clearly was a gap. We know that because it [the Central Station exchange] did not dilute the use of other sites in the area. It very rapidly became the busiest in Scotland, without a drop in the use of other sites.”

Chief Executive of the Scottish Drugs Forum, Dave Liddell, described the HIV figures as “alarming” and warned “we have an uncontained HIV outbreak in Scotland’s largest city”.

He said: “There is nothing we can do to prevent further spread in Glasgow and outside the city without decisive action.

“Firstly, we need to regularly test all people at risk to ensure that people who have HIV are aware of their status. Secondly, we need to ensure that people who are living with HIV are engaged in treatment and, thirdly, ensure that this treatment is effective and reduces their viral load to undetectable levels.”

Liddell also called for a “heroin assisted treatment” (HAT) programme in Glasgow, which would see addicts given heroin under medical supervision.

The NHS announced in January that it is “pressing ahead” with plans for a HAT programme.

However, plans for a safer drug consumption facility where addicts could use heroin bought on the streets hit the buffers last year because it would require a change to the Misuse of Drugs Act.

Glasgow Central MP Alison Thewliss last week introduced a Westminster bill which would allow for the piloting of such a facility.

She said: “In Scotland in 2016 there were 867 deaths from fatal overdoses of drugs – the highest number of deaths from drug overdose in Europe. We cannot stand still on this issue any longer.

"Supervised injecting facilities may not solve everything, but they have worked elsewhere," she said. "The Home Office must support my bill and allow Glasgow to go ahead with the pilot. If it doesn’t work, fine. We should still try.”

A Crown Office statement said it is “a matter for the UK Government”. A Home Office statement said there are “no plans” to allow drug consumption rooms.

A Network Rail spokesman said: “Prior to the exchange’s removal we had regular issues with used needles being left in bins, toilet and baby changing facilities as well as instances of drug users overdosing in the station."

He added: “However, at this time, we are not in a position where we could allow the reintroduction of the service.”


HIV is no longer a death sentence and new treatments mean most people with the virus live a long life.

However, injecting drug users are less likely to seek treatment, according to Carole Hunter, NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde’s lead addictions pharmacist.

HIV damages the cells in the immune system and weakens the body’s ability to fight everyday infections and disease.

Aids (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) is the potentially life-threatening series of infections and illnesses that occur when the immune system has been severely damaged by the HIV virus.

There is currently no cure for HIV, but there are very effective drug treatments and, with an early diagnosis and effective treatments, most people with HIV won't develop any Aids-related illnesses and will live a near-normal lifespan.

Hunter said HIV is transmitted through sharing needles, but also through sexual contact, so there is “always a possibility” that the outbreak could spread from injecting drug users to the general population.

However, she added that the “high risk” of transmission is between injecting drug users because the virus will go directly into the bloodstream.

“Discarded needles are not a risk to anyone," she said. "You’re not going to get HIV unless you’ve had that active blood contact with your own. Skin is a good barrier. The public might think discarded needles are a huge risk but in fact it’s a very, very low risk.”