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After 10 Years, NJ Moves Belatedly To Expand Needle-Exchange Programs

Syringe-exchange programs reduce blood-borne diseases like HIV and Hep-C, but to be truly effective they must reach a larger community

needle syringe opioid

A decade ago New Jersey launched a pilot program that established a handful of syringe exchange programs designed to help reduce HIV and other infection rates among drug addicts and the public at large.

Many other states had already adopted needle exchanges, and the five programs that developed in urban hubs in New Jersey have yielded positive results, studies show. Program leaders said they have helped thousands of patients and distributed hundreds of thousands of clean needles during each year of operation.

But drug addiction remains a crisis in New Jersey and, advocates said, the state’s heroin overdose rate is still three times the national average. Blood-borne diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C remain a problem in many communities.

State lawmakers, led by Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex) and Sen. Nia Gill (D-Essex), are now pushing to lock in these programs and expand their reach to communities around New Jersey. A measure (S-1266) approved unanimously on Monday by members of the Senate Health Committee, which Vitale chairs, would make clean-needle efforts permanent and permit them to operate in any willing municipality. An Assembly version of the bill awaits an initial hearing.

“The pilot project was just a compromise to get it through the legislature,” Vitale said. At the time, some lawmakers raised concerns about the impact these programs would have on drug use and quality of life. “We know it works -- and it must be expanded to as many places as possible.” Similar efforts to expand the program in the two previous legislative sessions never got to a full vote in either house. Needle-exchange efforts are currently operating in Newark, Jersey City, Paterson, Camden and Atlantic City; Asbury Park is also allowed to have a program, but it is not operational.

Nationwide, there are now some 228 syringe exchange programs in 35 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and some Indian Nations, according to the North American Syringe Exchange Network, which tracks these programs and advocates for their expansion. More than half the states or territories provide some public funding for the programs. Overall, these efforts have reduced the transmission of blood-borne diseases but have not led to higher rates of intravenous drug use, NASEN said.

New Jersey has seen similar positive results, supporters said. Georgett Watson, with the South Jersey Aids Alliance, said sharing needles was the primary cause of HIV transmission when the alliance opened the first legal needle-exchange program in Atlantic City, in 2007. Today, that is no longer the case. Clean needles reduce the chance that addicts will pass HIV, Hepatitis C, and other blood-borne diseases to each other when they share dirty drug “works.”

The lack of clean needles clearly “fueled the intensity of our epidemic” of HIV, agreed Alex Torres Marrero, a leader at the Hyacinth AIDs Foundation. “Syringe exchange truly works. I can tell you the thousands of lives we have saved.”

In addition to free access to clean needles, these programs are designed to provide a safe, welcoming entrée to other services. Drug users can connect with low-cost physical and mental health services, HIV testing, and education, and, if and when they are ready, detox and drug treatment programs. Vitale said many addicts have taken this path to get clean.

There is also benefit to addicts’ friends, family members and the community at large, supporters said. A representative from the New Jersey Deputy Fire Chiefs Association said the pilot programs have reduced the number of dirty needles firefighters encounter on rooftops, in homes, and along roadways. Puncture wounds from used needles had become a problem for emergency responders in some communities.

“We’ve helped clean up the dirty needles off the streets of Camden City,” said Martha Chavis, executive director of the Camden Area Health Education Center, which operates the needle-exchange program there. The organization also had, until this year, the state’s only mobile clean-needle effort, a van that toured the city twice a week. Chavis said she often receives thanks from children, parents, healthcare providers, and others for their efforts to reduce the dirty needle danger in the community.

The bill to expand the program would appropriate $95,000 for the Department of Health to oversee the local efforts. It would also require DOH to create an annual report on the programs for the administration, lawmakers, and other stakeholders.

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