State health officials continue to urge communities to consider syringe exchange programs as one way to reduce the spread of HIV and hepatitis C among injection drug users, but it once again appears that local officials are uninterested in such a program.
Several months ago, Mayor Scott Long expressed a willingness to open an exchange in Wabash as a preventative measure, but in a recent interview the mayor said he has since changed his mind after learning that exchange kits contain more than just sterile syringes.
“I was kind of ignorant to it,” Long said earlier this month. “I thought you were swapping a syringe for a syringe but when the prosecutor showed me what was included in the kit, I changed my tune. It includes everything for an addict to use except the heroin and a lighter to heat it. That’s what changed my mind.”
The exchanges have been controversial since state officials first authorized their use in 2015, following the worst HIV outbreak in the state’s history.
Residents of Madison County, for example, recently pushed their elected officials to shut down their county’s syringe exchange program. Former Gov. Mike Pence was himself a reluctant supporter, only moving to authorize exchanges after hundreds of Scott County residents tested positive for HIV, 80 percent of whom admitted to injection drug use.
Critics often point to kits themselves, which may include items like rubbing alcohol and rubber bands along with sterile syringes, as an example of why they believe the programs are counter-productive.
Long is now one of those critics, stating that while he is still concerned with the possible spread of HIV and hepatitis C in Wabash, “these kits are not my idea of how to do that.”
But supporters say these programs are a harm reduction strategy aimed at preventing the spread of communicable diseases and are not a solution to the state’s ongoing injection drug problem.
A study conducted by state health officials and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the syringe exchange in Scott County did not lead to increased injection drug use among most participants, but that participants did demonstrate safer injection habits after receiving kits.
Those findings were recently clarified by the CDC, which explained in a letter to state health officials last week that study participants in Scott County were injecting multiple times per use because their drug of choice – Opana – was thick, a factor not accounted for when the study’s results were initially released.
The study found that only one of the 56 drug users surveyed increased injection use, while five others reduced or discontinued use and the rest did not significantly change injection habits, according to the revised results.
“The CDC has clearly stated that syringe exchange programs do not increase injection drug use and that access to sterile injection equipment decreases unsafe behaviors that can spread disease like HIV and hepatitis C,” State Health Commissioner Jerome Adams, M.D., M.P.H. said in a statement last week. “It’s important to provide communities considering syringe exchange programs the facts and science about these programs, and this letter does that.”