COLUMBUS – With Ohio’s heroin epidemic, increasing numbers of communities are learning the public health value of having syringe exchange programs.
A report from the Center for Community Solutions shows these programs represent an effective strategy in combating infections associated with injection drug use.
In 1995, The Free Medical Clinic of Greater Cleveland was the first Ohio site to launch such a program, and clinic spokeswoman Donna Korn says the goal is to prevent illness before it starts. She adds people with addictions are human beings and deserve to be treated as such.
“As long as there’s life, there’s hope,” she states. “So, we provide clean, sterile syringes so that, while they’re in the throes of their addiction, they don’t necessarily contract the kinds of blood-borne pathogen diseases that often accompany addiction issues.”
Before 2015, a community needed to declare a public health emergency to create a syringe exchange program, but last year, Ohio law was changed to allow local health boards to establish an exchange without the declaration.
Columbus has since opened a program, raising the total number of syringe exchanges in the state to six.
The report provides guidance for communities as they look to establish syringe exchange programs.
Tara Britton, a public policy fellow with the Center for Community Solutions, says the need for addiction services outpaces their availability.
“Unfortunately, we’re at a point in time where heroin use is evident across the state,” she states. “Many communities are likely seeing the effects of having increased heroin addiction in terms of just having needles kind of strewn in parks, or streets.”
The report also notes these programs offer connections to primary health care providers and mental health and drug addiction treatment, as well as STD testing and Naloxone, a drug that can reverse opiate overdoses.
And Korn says she’s seen the positive results among clients.
“For some of them, it’s a great story, because they do in fact manage to pull through addiction, and they come out of it as healthy as they can be, given what’s been happening to them physically,” she points out. “But they’re not dealing with Hepatitis C or HIV, which is a wonderful thing.”
The report shows of the 950 new cases of HIV diagnosed in Ohio in 2014, 5 percent may have involved exposure through injection drug use.