Intravenous drug users who share needles run the risk of catching deadly diseases.
Some organizations offer clean needles as well as safe ways to dispose of used ones.
Recently, Nashua's Division of Public Health and Community Services launched the Syringe Services Alliance of Nashua Area, which aims to bring this service to parts of Southern New Hampshire, and officials say it's making an impact.
All Things Considered host Peter Biello interviewed Wendy LeBlanc, the vice president of the Southern New Hampshire HIV and AIDS Task Force, to discuss the alliance's progress:
Often, needle exchange services provide safe spaces to dispose of needles and to use intravenous drugs, but this is different. You’ve decided to bring needles to the people who need them. Why did you decide to do it this way?
Well, at this point, it is really an issue of funding. Syringe services just became legal in New Hampshire in June of last year, in 2017. There’s no state or federal funds that are allowed to be used for the purchase of materials such as clean syringes and all of the other supplies that people who use drugs need to do so safely. So what we are trying to do is get a small amount of grant money from AIDS United, which is a syringe service program that makes grants; we’ve received a little bit of funding from OraSure Technologies, which is an HIV testing company, and they’ve given us money to purchase the supplies. There’s not enough money in any of that for staff time or a bricks-and-mortar location or anything like that.
This program launched about three months ago. How can you tell it’s working?
Well, my goodness, just the number of interactions that we’ve seen. As of today, we’ve had a total of 119 clients, and more than half of those are return clients. So these are folks that are connecting with outreach workers, reconnecting, and each time they connect, they’re given a little bit more opportunity to have a conversation about what other services are available in the community to them to help them enter recovery if they’re ready. If they’re not, to provide education to them about how to eject safely, how to use the sterile supplies, and how to be sure to return the used ones so that they’re not being left out in the community for regular community members or emergency responders to encounter.
Humanize that number you just gave me a little bit and can you give us an example of someone that you remember as having benefited from this?
Well, absolutely. So my agency, the Southern New Hampshire HIV/AIDS Task Force, is providing a variety of direct support services to people who are living with HIV, some of whom are still injecting drugs. From my personal experience I can share with you that we do have some people living with HIV that are using injection drugs and are coming to us now to receive new, sterile syringes so that we know they’re not in any way possibly passing the virus along to others.
For those folks who use your service once, is it possible to know after the fact whether or not they have gotten help for an addiction?
We’re not collecting data as far as having folks identify themselves to us in any way. We don’t want that to be a barrier for somebody receiving services because they are afraid that somehow they may get arrested or may get in trouble or have something else happen to them. Unless a person comes back and talks with the outreach worker or reconnects with them once they’re in recovery, we don’t necessarily know for sure. It’s all going to be anecdotal information that we are collecting in regards to those types of things.
Have you received any push back from people in the community who say that programs like this would simply enable bad or unhealthy behavior?
Yeah, I think that’s a pretty common concern that people have. We’re doing our best to educate folks that this is a public health intervention that’s known as harm reduction. Of course we know that we would all prefer that nobody was injecting illicit drugs and nobody was addicted to opiates, but the reality is that’s not the case, people are. We want to help them be able to do it as safely as possible and help connect with them. People want to hear, yes, this leads every person to recovery or treatment services, and that’s not the case. Certainly, we hope that down the road that’s where somebody will end up, and we know that making these connections with the outreach workers and volunteers helps people to get that point. It’s another tool in the toolbox with all of the different programs that we have in the community to try to impact the opioid epidemic and hope that people will see that people are getting connected to services this way.
Is a program like this sustainable over the long term?
I think so. In the way that we’re going right now our budget is minimal, but the only thing that we need to purchase are the actual supplies. We have been awarded a grant and an opportunity to be part of a buyer’s club through a national alliance of syringe service programs so we can get things at a cheaper cost. And again, we have public outreach workers and a number of volunteers—people in the community that have come forward and said “This is important to me, how do I get involved?” We’ve seen a lot of support that way.