Though there are concerns about the benefits and costs of needle exchange programs, they have been effective in reducing the prevalence of HIV, Hepatitis C, and other infections transmitted by blood. Additionally, needle exchange programs provide support to those suffering from substance abuse in getting treatment and medical care.
Origins of Needle Exchanges
Needle exchanges arose in the 80s due to fears about the spread of HIV. Because of the scarcity of syringes among intravenous drug users, sharing needles was common among them, causing a surge in the disease within this demographic. In some communities, a majority of intravenous drug users became infected with HIV. Over the years, as needle exchange programs spread in major cities, there was growing awareness of the efficacy of needle exchanges in reducing the prevalence of HIV and other diseases spread by intravenous drug use.
Effectiveness of These Programs
According to the CDC, the prevalence of HIV among intravenous drug users dropped by 80 percent between 1988 and 2006. However, the rate of HIV infection among intravenous drug users remains substantial, with 8,700 reported infections from intravenous drug use in the United States in 2006.
Though opponents of needle exchanges have argued that providing needles promotes drug use, no evidence has ever been provided to support these claims. Those who are inclined to inject drugs are going to do so whether or not they have access to a needle exchange. Advocates of needle exchanges also argue that they are more socially cost-effective than ignoring the problem, since lifelong treatment of HIV for one person may cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, whereas providing syringes is relatively cheap. Because the aim of advocates is to counter the social and health consequences of drug use, they refer to their efforts as harm reduction.
Social Support Provided
In addition to providing clean needles, many needle exchanges provide referrals for drug treatment, condoms, and screening for sexually transmitted infections and other illnesses. Oftentimes, such exchanges are staffed by former users, enabling them to understand the needs of those seeking sterile syringes. By providing guidance and support, needle exchanges become a critical element in countering the cycle of substance abuse in society, thereby reducing the rates of drug abuse in the long run.
In addition to providing new syringes to intravenous drug users, needle exchanges collect used syringes for safe disposal. Without programs for their safe disposal, used syringes pose a health hazard, especially to children, as they are discarded in streets, alleys, parks and other public places.
In addition to promoting harm reduction by providing sterile needles to intravenous drug users, communities must emphasize treatment to combat drug addiction. Both efforts will help curtail the ravages of drug abuse in the long run, and both will require a reevaluation of the social stigmas associated with drug use.