Firmly in the grip of an opioid epidemic, and with injection drug use on the rise, Northeast Tennessee is in a dangerous position.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention named Washington, Carter, Johnson, Sullivan, Hawkins and Greene counties among the top 220 counties in the nation most at risk for a rapid spread of HIV or hepatitis C among injection drug users.
In Tennessee, reported rates of acute hepatitis C doubled from 2010-2015 and in 2016 rates of HIV diagnoses among adults and adolescents were 12.8 per 100,000, making the state 16th in new HIV diagnoses in the most recent rankings.
The new program, run by East Tennessee State University’s Center of Excellence for Inflammation, Infectious Disease and Immunity in its clinic on North State of Franklin Road, will trade new, sterile syringes for used needles, reducing the risky practice of reusing them.
Since 1988, studies have shown needle exchange programs significantly reduce the risk of injection drug users contracting serious infectious diseases. The body of evidence supporting their effectiveness at combating outbreaks is so large, detractors of exchanges don’t bother trying to refute this point.
Some of those opposing the public programs do object to the use of taxpayer dollars to fund them, but that argument doesn’t hold much water when considering the fiscal and societal costs of addiction.
A 2014 cost analysis by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Institute for Studies of Society, Economy and Environment of Hanoi, Vietnam, estimated a federal investment of $50 million in sterile needle programs would prevent $319.1 million in costs for HIV treatment, saving $269.1 million. That level of investment would also prevent 816 infections, if you want to understand the effects on public health.
So $1 invested saves at least $6 in costs associated with treating just HIV, without mentioning hepatitis infections.
Then there are those who worry needle exchange programs will encourage the use of injection drugs and increase crime near exchange sites, but that’s not really been demonstrated to be the case, either.
Angela Hagaman, director of operations at the ETSU Center for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment, points to many studies that show exchange programs decrease drug use by referring people to treatment as they take advantage of the program’s services.
Participants of exchange programs are five times more likely to enter drug treatment than those not participating.
Needle exchanges and the people receiving services from them have faced stigmatization for years, making it difficult for operators to secure funding and discouraging those who need help from seeking it.
Let’s fight those stigmas with fact-based evidence and allow our new syringe exchange program to work to better the health of our community.