Dr. Sean B. Rourke stands beside an Our Healthbox machine.

Dr. Sean B. Rourke

Program led by St. Michael’s Hospital to dispense free HIV self-testing kits, harm reduction, sexual health supplies

Machines that dispense free self-testing kits for HIV and COVID-19, naloxone kits, new needles, condoms and other essential harm reduction and sexual health supplies will soon appear in communities across Canada.

The ‘smart’ machines, called Our Healthbox, work like a vending machine, and also provide health information and a service directory for people to find much-needed health care and supports in their community. The initiative, led by researchers at St. Michael’s Hospital, a site of Unity Health Toronto, will launch in four communities in New Brunswick on Jan. 23, with plans to launch up to 50 machines across Canada in 2023. The goal is to install 100 machines over the next three years, and to evaluate how well they support people with their health needs.

The initiative launches as new HIV cases in Canada rise and the country’s opioid crisis claims the lives of 20 Canadians each day. Providing access to harm reduction and health care supplies for free to people in spaces they frequent is a strategy experts consider as key to reaching people who are underserved and who have barriers to accessing testing, harm reduction materials, treatment, care and prevention due to racism, homophobia, stigma and discrimination.

“Everyone in Canada deserves to have what they need, when they need it, to take care of their health. But we know that this is not the case, and so we are doing everything we can to bridge that gap in ways that work for each person in their community,” said Dr. Sean B. Rourke, a scientist at MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions, a world-leading research centre housed at St. Michael’s Hospital, and the Director of REACH Nexus, a national research group working on how to address access and treatment for HIV, Hepatitis C and other sexually transmitted and blood-borne infections.

Our Healthbox is the latest phase of work led by Rourke to connect those with complex health and social circumstances to testing, treatment and prevention. In 2019, Rourke spearheaded a cross-Canada clinical trial which evaluated and proved the accuracy of HIV-self tests – Health Canada approved the tests for use in November 2020 based on the results of the trial. In June 2022, Rourke launched the I’m Ready research program, distributing 10,000 free HIV self-testing kits across Canada to reach people who are undiagnosed and get them connected to care, with the goal of identifying the factors that affect access to testing and care.

Rourke and his team will work with local community-based organizations, public health authorities, and health centres to host and maintain the Our Healthbox program. Each agency determines the supplies needed in the machines to serve the people in their community. The east coast launch of Our Healthbox is funded by Even the Odds, a partnership between Staples Canada and MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions.

“Our Healthbox will ensure underserved individuals in the community have low barrier access to resources that not only reduce their risk of infections, but in fact save their lives,” said Deborah R. Warren, Executive Director at ENSEMBLE, a community-based organization in Moncton, N.B. that works to address complex social issues by providing support, education and prevention initiatives. “We are currently in the midst of a substance use crisis that sees the death of one New Brunswicker every four days. Providing access to free naloxone will save many lives.”

Our Healthbox is funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Public Health Agency of Canada, the Canadian Foundation for AIDS Research (CANFAR), the St. Michael’s Hospital Foundation, and Even The Odds (Staples Canada and MAP).