On Wednesday, East Tennessee State University announced that its Center of Excellence for Inflammation, Infectious Disease and Immunity will provide new, unused needles and naloxone to people who inject drugs through participation in the new Syringe Trade and Education Program of Tennessee.
The free syringe exchange program will be housed at the ETSU Quillen infectious diseases clinic, 615 N. State of Franklin Road.
“Research indicates public funding of syringe service programs such as STEP TN is associated with lower rates of HIV and greater numbers of health and social services provided,” said Angela Hagaman, director of operations at the ETSU Center for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment. “Many studies (also) show that syringe exchange programs decrease drug use by connecting people to treatment.”
Of the 2.7 to 3.9 million people in the nation who have chronic hepatitis C, the most common means of transmission is injecting drugs.
In Tennessee, reported rates of hepatitis C increased 100 percent from 2010 to 2016, and in 2016, HIV diagnoses among adults and adolescents were 12.8 per 100,000.
As far as new HIV diagnosis rates go, Tennessee ranks 16th in the nation in the most recent rankings.
“The CDC says we’re in the top 5 percent in the nation most vulnerable to an HIV or hepatitis outbreak related to intravenous drug abuse,” Hagaman said.
Hagaman and other ETSU researchers found that many Tennesseans are largely unaware of how the lack of syringe exchange programs play into the risk of a potential HIV/hepatitis outbreak, but are generally supportive of prevention strategies such as syringe exchange programs.
“I do think now, as the crisis continues, many people are coming around,” Hagaman said.
According to data compiled by ETSU’s Center for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment, there are an estimated 1.3 million people who inject drugs in the United States and an expected 4,000 new HIV infections per year among this group.
While 74 percent of Tennesseans surveyed by researchers said they agreed with harm reduction measures such as syringe exchange programs, Hagaman said the issue remains largely controversial, due to the stigmas associated with drug abuse.
“We don’t treat it the same way we treat other chronic diseases,” she said. “There’s still this myth that it will make people use more drugs, that there will be more needles on the street and that you're encouraging a bad moral decision.
“A lot of people don’t necessarily understand the science behind harm reduction yet. We want to understand people’s concerns and help them understand the science.”