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Wilson County’s Syringe Exchange Program is another initiative officials say can be used to connect heroin users to treatment.
The effort that launches next month should also help overall health by protecting community members from diseases associated with dirty needle use including hepatitis C and HIV.
“Nationwide, we have seen an increase in hepatitis C, particularly with heroin users because they are sharing dirty needles,” said Wilson County Health Director Teresa Ellen.
Heroin users oftentimes use and share dirty needles to inject the drug, posing health risks to themselves and others. This program will give users a way to exchange those dirty needles for unused clean ones.
Ellen said it’s a misconception that syringe exchange programs enable drug use.
Research shows that these types of programs decrease drug use because officials are on the front lines and are able to connect those addicts to treatment. Program participants are five times more likely to enter drug treatment than non-program participants, according to the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition.
Syringe exchange programs are shown to lead to a 66 percent reduction in needle-stick injuries to law enforcement as well, according to the coalition. And many law enforcement agencies in North Carolina are getting on board with these types of programs, including Wilson.
In August, the Healthcare Foundation of Wilson awarded the Wilson County Health Department a $5,000 grant that will fund the syringe exchange program. It will also support HIV, STD and hepatitis C testing that will be offered to participants. Ellen said another part of the project will enable officials to develop relationships with program participants and connect them to services including detox and/or long-term treatment.
The Wilson Police Department and the Wilson County Sheriff’s Office are also partners in the project.
Research also shows that more than 90 percent of syringes distributed by an exchange program are returned, limiting others in the community to exposure, according to the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition.
Hepatitis C is a bloodborne virus. Most people become infected with it by sharing needles or other injection equipment, according to health officials.
“It’s not curable,” Ellen said. “There is treatment for it. But if you don’t know you have it and you don’t treat it, it can cause cirrhosis of the liver or liver cancer and death eventually.”
And the heroin epidemic is causing a spike in hepatitis C cases throughout the country and in North Carolina. As officials here combat the heroin crisis, the syringe exchange program is being implemented to prevent another one.
New cases of hepatitis C increased by 69 percent in North Carolina between 2014 and 2016, according to state health officials. In 2016, there were 186 new cases of hepatitis C reported across the state. The Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention estimates the actual number of infections is 14 times higher than reported cases.
Wilson is one of several counties across the state that have implemented a syringe exchange program. Ellen said officials have already put an order in for the syringe exchange kits. Polices and procedures are almost in place.
“We are hoping to be ready to go by the first of October,” she said.
A user can go into the health department where he or she will be registered for the program.
“So that if they come back, we can keep up with what they give us and what we give back to them,” Ellen said. “The idea is that the user brings in their dirty needles in exchange for clean, unused ones.”
The kits include a small sharps container, clean syringes, alcohol swabs and a tourniquet.
“We are planning to put condoms in there as well,” Ellen said. “At least once during their exchange, we would like to give them a naloxone kit.”
Naloxone is a life-saving antidote that reverses opioid overdoses.
The participant will receive a card that identifies him or her as a part of the syringe exchange program and the health department’s agreement with law enforcement. If law enforcement sees that user with that card, they will not arrest him or her for having drug paraphernalia, Ellen said.
Ellen said the ultimate goal is to develop a relationship with the users so health officials can connect them to the Wilson Police Department’s Hope Alliance initiative. The program, which kicked off Wednesday, is a safe way for opioid and heroin addicts to get help without fear of being arrested or prosecuted. A person who is ready to enter detox or residential treatment can seek help through the Wilson Police Department. That’s where the person will be connected to vital community resources.
In addition to health officials, law enforcement will be promoting the syringe exchange program in the community.
Ellen said the health department also hopes to launch a mobile syringe exchange program with the help of community volunteers. Those volunteers will go out and meet users where they are and get them into the program.