By Gus Jarvis
With growing illegal intravenous drug use a continuing scourge on communities across the country, needle exchange programs, like the one offered by the Western Colorado AIDS Project in Grand Junction, are not only playing an important role in stopping the spread of deadly diseases but can also improve the overall health of drug users and set a path to substance abuse recovery.
Needle exchange programs offer intravenous drug users a way to acquire clean syringes instead of sharing needles and spreading diseases, like Hepatitis C and HIV. Here in Colorado, needle exchange programs were essentially illegal until 2010 when the Colorado Legislature approved a bill that allows the programs, as long as local health boards approve them as well.
Jeff Basinger, the director of regional programs at Western Colorado AIDS Project (WestCAP), says needle exchange programs are often misunderstood and research proves the programs are effective in stopping the spread of disease. “With new legislation and subsequent implementation in various communities, these programs have been a step in the right direction in helping stop the spread of HIV,” Basinger says. “There is a misrepresentation among people that are opposed to exchange programs. They think that they enable people to use drugs, but in reality 30 years of research prove it's the single most effective intervention to help reduce the spread of disease.”
At WestCAP, Basinger says individuals who participate in its needle exchange program are kept completely anonymous upon registering. Once registered, an individual is given a mental health and substance abuse screening to determine their level of drug use. WestCAP program facilitators also instruct them on safer injection techniques, vein care, safe disposal of needles, and the importance of not sharing any kind of injection paraphernalia including water, cookers, bleach, and especially, syringes. Basinger says those in the program will typically leave with about 20-40 new syringes, as well as a biohazard container in which to dispose of used needles.
“In the first nine months we operated in July 2013, we had 15 people enrolled,” he says. “We started getting the word out about the program through outreach and fliers in parks, homeless shelters, and food banks. Today we are approaching 300 individuals in the program.”
Unfortunately, with heroin use rising dramatically across the country, especially in rural communities, the need for needle exchanges is growing. “Research and various studies have shown that injection drug use is higher in rural areas than urban areas. In the last year, we’ve seen a shift from 75 percent of our participants using meth to 75 percent now using heroin. The whole country, even here in Western Colorado, is being flooded with heroin,” Basinger says.
“As injection drug use rates shift, we need to be at the front of this,” Telluride AIDS Benefit Sarah Gluckstern says. Gluckstern has an extensive background with HIV prevention programs including work with the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. “Drug users are going to use drugs one way or another. Isn’t it better to create a norm and expectation for them that they need to use a clean needle?”
In her work, one of the most important benefits she’s seen needle exchange programs have on participants is its humanizing nature. “It’s easy to reduce injection drug users into these clichés, but it is important to remember they are people, they have a story, and we should approach them without judgment,” Gluckstern says. “These programs give users a better sense of dignity and offers a lot of other resources to them. It re-humanizes them in a society that often reduces people to being labeled as unappealing characters.”
Many programs don’t stop at needle exchanges. At WestCAP, a new program they are implementing is to provide various medications to individuals, including Truvada, which can keep high-risk individuals from acquiring HIV. WestCAP is also working to provide Naloxone to individuals. This drug can reverse the effects of an opiate overdose. Basinger hopes WestCAP will be able to provide these service by this summer.
From stopping the spread of communicable diseases, to fostering healthier individuals, to aiding those on the path to addiction recovery, needle exchange programs are making an important difference. WestCAP is committed to providing these services to those living in rural communities. “Worldwide research and science medicine over the past thirty years have shown how effective these programs are,” he says. “You can stop the spread of disease and improve health and recovery from substance abuse.”
WestCAP has been a TAB beneficiary since 1997. WestCAP’s current hours are from 2 p.m. to 5:45 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. No appointment is necessary. People are seen on a first-come, first-served basis. For more information call 970-243-2437, or visit http://www.coloradohealthnetwork.org/western-colorado-aids-project.