Aims: To review the evidence on the effectiveness of harm reduction interventions involving the provision of sterile injecting equipment in the prevention of hepatitis C virus (HCV) and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) transmission among injecting drug users (IDUs). The interventions assessed were needle and syringe programmes (NSP), alternative modes of needle/syringe provision (pharmacies, vending machines and outreach) and the provision of injecting equipment other than needles/syringes.
Methods: Systematic searches of the English language literature to March 2007 were undertaken to identify systematic, narrative or meta-analytical reviews (also known as a review of reviews) of the impact of interventions on HCV transmission, HIV transmission or injecting risk behaviour (IRB). Critical appraisal criteria classified the reviews as either high quality ('core') or supplementary: a framework based on the quality of reviews, the reviewers' conclusions and the designs/findings of the primary studies was used to derive evidence statements.
Results: Three core and two supplementary reviews of injecting equipment interventions were identified. According to the proposed framework, this study found (a) insufficient evidence to conclude that any of the interventions are effective in preventing HCV transmission; (b) tentative evidence to support the effectiveness of NSP in preventing HIV transmission; (c) sufficient evidence to support the effectiveness of NSP (and tentative evidence of an additional impact of pharmacy NSP) in reducing self-reported IRB; and (d) little to no evidence on vending machines, outreach or providing other injecting equipment in relation to any of the outcomes.
Conclusions: The evidence is weaker than given credit for in the literature. The lack of evidence for effectiveness of NSP vis-à-vis biological outcomes (HCV and HIV incidence/prevalence) reflects the limitations of studies that have been undertaken to investigate these associations. Particularly for HCV, low levels of IRB may be insufficient to reduce high levels of transmission. New studies are required to identify the intervention coverage necessary to achieve sustained changes in blood-borne virus transmission.