As the opiate epidemic in the United States grows larger and larger, the commonality of blood-borne illnesses is also growing at an alarming rate. Through the practices of reusing and sharing needles and other injection devices, addicts are at high risk of illnesses. These illnesses include HIV, Hepatitis C and Hepatitis B, all which can have lasting effects on health, and even death, if left untreated. Needle exchange programs, when effective, are beneficial to addicts in that they prevent the spread of disease through needles, as well as provide other resources for support in managing and ultimately overcoming the addiction.
Needle exchange programs provide addicts with the access to sterile needles and syringes, where otherwise they would potentially be using old or unclean ones, or sharing used needles between other users. Both of these common practices carry high risk of spreading disease, and having affordable access to sterile needles reduces the transmission of HIV and other blood borne illnesses. This affordable access provided by needle exchange programs is extremely important an addict’s health during and after addiction. Needle exchange programs may set up in clinics or other areas during different times of the week. And for those who are not able to reach those facilities, facilitators of the program may drive around heroin-prevalent areas in a van or RV, handing out supplies and resources. Alex Drexler, a former heroin user who utilized needle exchange programs, says that this service was beneficial to him during the time he was using heroin. Drexler explains that people who use the program “bring used needles and get the same amount of fresh needles…they also offer clean instruments to use and cook, and it’s a great public health service to prevent the spread of disease”.
Needle exchange programs often do more for addicts than just exchange needles. Aaron Head, Director of New Foundations, a halfway house organization in in Cincinnati, states that “In Cincinnati, they have a mobile home they drive around in in order to reach people in the area that may need assistance”. Head also makes a point that this is not the only service they provide, “They practice harm reduction, trying to keep down the spread of Hepatitis C and HIV down, and also give people resources for recovery and various other things”. These additional resources are important because they teach an addict how to prevent infection in the first place, as well as aiding them with help and means for getting off drugs. With all that these programs do to help combat the opiate epidemic, there is unfortunately very little federal funding given to these programs, in part due to the stigmas attached to them on the surface level.
Common arguments against needle exchange programs center around they notion that they enable the drug user by providing them with accessible tools to use these drugs causing them harm. The reality is that this notion is not backed up by the evidence. Multiple studies have proved that needle exchange programs generally reduced the spread of HIV without increasing drug use. The most notable of these occurred in 2016, where the CDC reviewed 15 studies over decades of research, concluding that the programs were in fact beneficial towards a decrease in blood-borne illnesses, and drug use didn’t necessarily increase or decrease in direct relation to them (Center for Disease Control and Prevention).
Needle exchange programs are an extremely beneficial resource to communities affected by heroin addiction and the blood-borne illnesses like Hepatitis C and HIV, that are commonly associated with drug users who often are forced to share needles in order to inject. Allowing more implementation of these programs and federal funding to do so will ensure that these programs are able to be put into place and will become more common mainly in cities that are most affected by it. This way addicts will be able to stay free of disease while trying to get clean, have access to the resources to be able to do so, and will be able to be healthy in life after addiction.
“Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 26 Apr. 2017, www.cdc.gov/.
Head, Aaron. Personal Interview. 12 November 2017.
Drexler, Alex. Personal Interview. 15 November 2017.