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Needle exchange programs increase safety for IV drug users

In the wake of the opioid epidemic and its impact on public health, Athens and other Ohio communities have established needle exchange programs to reduce the damage.

Athens County began its program last March to reduce the spread of diseases through needle sharing by offering clean needles to individuals. The program initially operated in Hocking-Athens-Perry Community Action but then moved to the Athens City-County Health Department after several months, and it offers services every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.

The program brings in 20 to 30 people each week on average, Dr. James Gaskell, health commissioner at the Athens health department, said.

“Most of them are repeats, but we continue to see new individuals, and it’s spread by word of mouth,” Gaskell said. 

The program allows the department to interact with and gain more knowledge about those with drug addictions in Athens, Gaskell said. 

Lucas County established its program, Northwest Ohio Syringe Services, in August 2017. Five months in, the program has gained 100 clients, Jerry Kerr, the HIV prevention coordinator at the Lucas County program, said.

“It’s a good way of getting in touch with folks. Otherwise, it’s a very hidden population,” Kerr said. 

Stark-Wide Approach to Prevention, referred to as Project SWAP, started in June in Canton. It has 113 clients Diane Thompson, director of nursing at the Canton City Health Department, said. 

Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Dayton, Portsmouth, Gallipolis and Jefferson County have similar programs as well. 

“In places that have needle exchange programs, they witness a decrease in the incidence of hepatitis C,” Gaskell said.

Kerr said the programs have been "studied to high heaven," and the studies indicate that they don't result in any increase in drug abuse. 

Hepatitis C is a blood-borne virus that sometimes occurs when people share needles to inject drugs, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The virus can cause liver damage and long-term health problems.

“The incidence of hepatitis C in a region is often a marker for heroin use,” Gaskell said.

Athens has seen an increase in rates of hepatitis B and C, both of which can be passed through dirty needles. Hepatitis B cases increased from 28 in 2015 to 48 in 2016, Gaskell said.

Bacterial infections, such as staph infections, also pose another risk.

“Individuals who use dirty needles get bloodstream staph infections that sometimes infect their hearts,” Gaskell said. 

The Athens City-County Health Department offers testing for hepatitis B and C, as well as hepatitis A and B immunizations. No vaccine for hepatitis C exists. 

The department also offers users Narcan, a brand name for naloxone, which reverses effects of opioid overdoses. Additionally, the department has a counselor who can discuss treatment with drug users. 

The program in Athens relies on private donations, needles provided by pharmacies and grant money — the Athens Foundation provided $4,500 in grant money, Gaskell said. 

Northwest Ohio Syringe Services receives help with purchasing its equipment from the Mental Health and Recovery Services Board of Lucas County, and the University of Toledo Medical Center pays the salaries of two full-time staff members, Kerr said.

SWAP currently receives funding through AIDS United, Thompson said. 

Ohio has one of the highest rates of drug overdose deaths for its population, second only to West Virginia, according to the CDC. Gaskell said 11 Ohioans die daily from opioid overdoses. 

“The opioid epidemic in Ohio is a serious — indeed, probably the greatest — public health challenge of the last half century,” Gaskell said.


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