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V 35 Issue 30

 
 
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Needle exchange helps curtail new HIV infection rates
Needle exchange helps curtail new HIV infection rates
Program a bargain for taxpayers, says Public Health by Liz Meyer - SGN Staff Writer

The statistics are jaw-dropping: on a national scale, over 50 percent of all new HIV infections come from injection drug users. Two thirds of these new infections come from sharing needles, and the rest either come from unprotected sex with an injection drug user, or transmission from an infected mother to her fetus or newborn child, otherwise known as perinatal infection.

To be able to point out a guilty culprit in HIV's seemingly limitless grasp (as far as numbers affected, costs in human lives and resources, etc.) almost seems like a minor victory. That is, for those preaching prevention as the cure, needles in particular loom as a very visible symbol of HIV's worst enemy. Needles: the evil, powerful They-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, right?

Certainly, there's some truth to this idea. Yes, injection drug use spreads the virus at an unparalleled pace. Yes, needles are obviously the very means through which injection drug use occurs. And following this logic, it might make sense to declare injection drug use, while a clear HIV offender, a lost cause.

However, for many, needles and injection drug use represents a tipping point, the very place where public health officials can, and already have, effectively combat HIV and AIDS.

The needle exchange program run by Public Health - Seattle and King County has seen great success in its efforts to fight new HIV diagnoses. Started in 1989 at the request of a group from ACT-UP, it was one of the nation's first programs of its kind.

"Our region established needle exchange early on in the course of the HIV epidemic," says Michael Hanrahan, Manager of HIV Education & Prevention Services for Public Health - Seattle and King County. "The rate of infection among drug users is very low. It's about 2-4 percent. In other communities that started needle exchange late in the game, the rate is much higher."

The program is funded by taxpayer money provided by Washington State, King County and the City of Seattle. Our money goes a long way as far as funding the program goes, too. The combined total cost for needle exchange programs in Seattle-King County in 2001 was $775,000. This compares to the $120,000-$150,000 in medical costs needed to care for just one person with AIDS from the time of infection to death, according to Public Health - Seattle and King County.

The program works this way: a client comes to needle exchange drop sites located within Capitol Hill, downtown, the U-District, and White Center. Though times vary at the different drop sites, there is at least one time slot available for needle exchange every day of the week. Once at the site, a client may exchange used needles on a one-to-one basis. No questions are asked, and no registration is required. While confidentiality might make tracking the number of clients served by needle exchange harder to gauge, it is absolutely crucial in encouraging people to use the program.

The result of the program? Thousands of saved lives, says Hanrahan. "We have been able to control HIV infection rates among drug users in King County," he explained. "There has also been very little perinatal infection in King County."

Hanrahan estimates that around six to seven thousand people use the needle exchange program every year. He guesses that this is a little less than half of the people in the area using intravenous drugs.

The program makes no claims that it can "cure" drug use, but it encourages those who want help to quit. "There have been a number of studies done that show that needle exchange programs neither increase drug use, nor lead more people into drug use," says Hanrahan.

Perhaps more importantly, the needle exchange program certainly provides resources for much safer drug use. Besides preventing the spread of HIV, the needle exchange program offers a variety of other social services.

"At our downtown site, we also have a medical clinic onsite and provide care for wounds and abscesses," Hanrahan says. "We provide educational programs on vein care and how to avoid getting abscesses. We provide educational programs on how to avoid overdosing. We also have a case manager who helps people who want to get into treatment get into treatment."

For more information on the needle exchange program, or to volunteer, visit HYPERLINK "http://www.metrokc.gov/health/apu/resources/fneedle.htm" www.metrokc.gov/health/apu/resources/fneedle.htm.

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