Education is key when it comes to syringe exchange programs

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'Why would you give a needle to a drug addict?' Let me explain...

By Zac Oakes

 “Why would you give a needle to a drug addict?”

Admittedly, I once thought that was a very stupid question. It would just enable an addict, make it easier for them to do their drug of choice. Why make needles easier to get? These were all thoughts I had when I first heard about syringe exchange programs.

And so when I hear people express these thoughts, I don’t automatically discredit them, because it wasn’t that long ago that I thought the exact same thing.

But the thing that changed my opinion on syringe exchange programs was simple: education. Education about what they entail, how they work, the benefits that they provide to those suffering from addiction, and statistics turned my view 180 degrees.  

I’m not a math expert by any means. Honestly, it was always one of my worst subject areas in school. Despite my deficiencies in math overall, there was always one area in which I did well and was interested in. That, of course, was statistics. I find them useful in the areas of sports and politics, and they are typically my go-to to develop opinions on a wide variety of matters.

Do numbers always tell the full story? No, not always, but they do provide a lot of insight, and in most cases, can be an objective way of looking at things.

Since Adair County and Russell County have begun syringe exchange programs, they have collected a total of just over 2,500 (2,515 to be exact) contaminated needles in the last four months. Averaged out, that is 628-629 needles per month that are returned and securely disposed of at the health department.

You may think that number is not extraordinarily high for a two-county area where drug use is widespread, but think about it this way. That is 2,515 needles that could contain HIV or Hepatitis C that are not laying on a sidewalk downtown, a restaurant parking lot, by a lake or park (where several needles have been found in this area), at a school, a playground, a church, or in an innocent bystander’s driveway or yard.

Drug abuse knows no boundaries, and oftentimes, contaminated needles can be found anywhere in a city or county. Sadly, they often can be found in areas where unsuspecting children can and will come into contact with them. You can educate your children about not touching a needle they find lying on the ground, but sometimes a child’s natural curiosity can take over at no fault of the parents, and they end up pricking themselves with a needle. It has happened many times, and it would be naïve to think that it couldn’t happen to your child, grandchild, niece, nephew, etc.

Many people have concerns about the fiscal impact of a syringe-exchange program. They do not want to pay for people to receive clean needles, and that is certainly an understandable stance. Luckily enough, there are grants available to cover the costs of these programs. According to a story in The Adair Progress in May, the syringe exchange program in Adair County is completely funded by grants.

Compare that with the cost of treating someone with HIV or Hepatitis C. The lifetime cost of treatment for someone with HIV ranges between $300,000 and $600,000, according to the CDC, while it is estimated that the average annual cost of a Hepatitis C treatment ranges from $25,000 to $30,000.

All in all, I think education about syringe exchange programs is vital to completely understand how the programs work, so I will break it down as to what syringe exchange programs do and what they do not.

Syringe Exchange Programs DO: lower the risk of the spread of Hepatitis C and HIV, reduce the number of contaminated needles lying in public areas and at private residences, protect law enforcement and first responders from accidental sticks, provide testing of diseases for patients, and connect people to treatment.

That last one is also really key. One study found that those struggling from addiction were five times more likely to seek treatment if they visited a syringe exchange location as opposed to those who did not. It is not required that those who visit seek treatment, but those options are presented while they are there.

Syringe Exchange Programs DO NOT: Encourage drug use (many studies have found that there is not an increase in drug use in areas with syringe exchange programs, and some have experienced decreases), increase crime (multiple studies have actually found decreases in crime), and they do not provide a financial burden to taxpayers due to the availability of grants.

The drug epidemic we are experiencing in our area is a substantial threat that affects many areas of our lives. For a long time we have buried our heads in the sand and tried to pretend that it wasn’t there, but there is no longer a way to deny it’s threat. In order to fight it to the best of our ability, we must use every tool at our disposal.

Is a needle exchange program a silver bullet? Absolutely not. It is simply one tool needed in the arsenal to fight back against the epidemic. By failing to add it to our arsenal, we put ourselves at a disadvantage, and if it only helps a few people, it would be counted as a victory in my book.

I strongly encourage our Campbellsville city government and Taylor County government, as well as members of the community, to continue educating themselves on syringe exchange programs. Learn more about what they provide and the vast amounts of research on them. Ask health officials in Adair and Russell Counties (or other counties that have approved these programs) how they work and what it has done in those communities.

Together, we can fight back against drug addiction, but to defeat this monster that has caused so much death and destruction, we cannot afford to fight back without every possible tool at our disposal.