Needle exchange programs effective tool


South Bend Tribunne

Last year, Indiana passed a law allowing local governments to approve needle exchange programs to stop the spread of dangerous infectious diseases.

It’s just the sort of proactive tool that communities need to respond to a problem before it becomes a full-blown crisis. It was the HIV outbreak associated with intravenous drug use a few years ago in rural Scott County — one of the worst documented outbreaks in the past two decades — that had spurred changes in Indiana, where for many years needle exchange programs were illegal.

But as we noted in a comment last year, changing Indiana law is one thing, “changing certain attitudes about needle exchange programs is another matter.”

Consider the situation in Miami County, where the number of hepatitis C cases nearly doubled in one year, from 2015 to 2016. In response, a proposal to start a needle exchange program garnered support from Gov. Eric Holcomb’s office, the mayor of Peru, Ind., the county extension director and others.

Despite this, the county will likely not get a syringe exchange program anytime soon, according to a report in the Kokomo Tribune. The county health officer said that he would not declare a public health emergency and that the number of hepatitis C cases didn’t justify implementing a program. Without a declaration from its health officer, Miami County cannot pursue a needle exchange program.

The proposal also received push back from the county prosecutor’s office, which said the program would lead to an increase in needles found in public places and would lead more addicts from surrounding counties to come to Peru to pick up clean needles, sometimes bringing drugs with them.

Needle exchange programs, which allow drug users to swap dirty needles for clean ones, are endorsed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as effective in reducing HIV transmission rates and lowering the risk of hepatitis infections among drug users.

And according to the World Health Organization, there’s no evidence that needle exchange programs exacerbate “injecting drug use at either the individual or societal level.”

Last year, Jerome Adams, the former Indiana health commissioner now serving as the U.S surgeon general, wrote in a blog post that the programs “save lives, both by preventing the spread of diseases like HIV and hepatitis C and by connecting people to treatment that can put them on a path to recovery.”

That’s something that Indiana officials should keep in mind as communities grapple with ways to combat the state’s opioid problem.

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