It turns out getting free, clean needles for drug abuse isn’t as hard as one might think.
Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Albany, which hit the news last week when it announced a program to give out free needles to drug addicts in Albany, has actually been giving out needles throughout the region for more than a year.
It has partnered with pharmacies from Schenectady to Catskill to give out free packs of 10 needles to anyone holding a syringe voucher card. Those cards can be picked up anonymously at the Damien Center and Hometown Health in Schenectady, the offices of the AIDS Council of Northeastern New York and many other places.
And many pharmacies that aren’t involved in that program are giving away needles on their own, said Angela Keller, executive director at Catholic Charities AIDS Services.
“There’s many others that are doing it that aren’t connected to us at all,” she said.
Locally, Rite Aid gives out free syringes, as does the pharmacy at Hometown Health.
Those efforts are not well-publicized and have generally flown under the radar. So Catholic Charities has borne the brunt of the criticism since it went public last week.
Many conservatives say giving needles to drug addicts is not only a waste of money, but actually harmful.
“You’re basically giving people a weapon to kill themselves,” said Thomas Buchanan, who leads the Schenectady County Republicans. “You can still OD on this stuff. It’s still destructive. Sure, HIV, maybe that will help, but you should be getting people off this stuff, not enabling them.”
Some church members have sworn to stop donating to Catholic Charities in response to the exchange program, saying their money should not go toward helping drug addicts. But others offered support.
“Reaction has been mixed,” Keller said.
Health policy officials have sprung to Catholic Charities’ defense, saying needle exchange programs are the best way to prevent the spread of HIV, hepatitis B and C and other infectious diseases.
“They are probably one of the most effective public health programs to reduce the transmission of HIV and other bloodborne pathogens,” said Julie Harris, deputy executive director of the AIDS Council of Northeastern New York.
Hometown Health also strongly supports the program, for the same reasons.
Those in favor of the program have statistics on their side: in 1999, 50 percent of the country’s new HIV cases came from sharing needles with an infected addict, according to Beth Israel Research Center in New York City. But among users who participated in a syringe exchange program, sharing and borrowing needles dropped by 50 percent, according to the center’s interviews with participants. The center noted that in 2004, after private syringe exchange programs became common, only 10 to 13 percent of new HIV cases came from sharing needles.
The center also found that drug use among participants dropped by 8 percent — indicating that for some small percentage of the addicts, the literature and rehab counseling offered by those giving out the needles is effective.
The exchange program doesn’t just reduce the spread of HIV. The National Viral Hepatitis Roundtable — a group of health officials — has also argued in favor of syringe exchange programs to stop the spread of hepatitis B and C. The NVHR says studies have found that 70 percent of people who inject drugs are infected with one of those two viruses. Left untreated, they can cause serious liver disease and even liver failure.
Congress was convinced by such statistics. In December, it overturned a 20-year ban on using federal funds to support syringe exchange programs.
It was in the wake of that decision that Catholic Charities decided to begin a more public exchange program. The agency will park a van at two locations in Albany where it believes drug users congregate and offer free needles. Workers will also collect used needles while members of the AIDS Council do HIV screenings. Both agencies will also encourage addicts to enroll in rehab programs.
Keller said she started the program to try to counsel addicts.
“We don’t condone illegal drug use. We hope to have an avenue,” she said.
Harris, at the AIDS Council of Northeastern New York, supports the van program as a way to reach addicts who may be sharing needles and aren’t aware of the vouchers for clean syringes.
“We make vouchers available to people who are already involved in our programs,” she noted. “Probably the van might attract people who aren’t involved in any other services.”
In Schenectady, the vouchers are available at Hometown Health, the AIDS Council of Northeastern New York and the Damien Center, which works with residents diagnosed with HIV or AIDS. Vouchers can be redeemed at the Hometown Health pharmacy and at the Rite Aid on Eastern Avenue.
About 50 people use the program at Hometown Health, medical home services director Elizabeth Magliocca said. But many are uninsured diabetics who are too poor to afford their own needles for insulin injections yet don’t qualify for Medicaid.
“We do have a handful of stated IV drug users, but they’re not required to tell us,” Magliocca said. “We have one or two regulars — very regular. I know they’re users; they told us.”
Hometown Health considers the needle exchange so important that nurses are directed to give out syringes whenever anyone asks for them — no matter how often they show up.
“They can come every day if they want to,” Magliocca said. “Anybody can come in off the street. They don’t have to be our patient.”
Hometown Health also tries to emphasize the importance of bringing the used needles back for proper disposal. Nurses give out containers — but few are ever returned.
“The idea there is, if they’re IV drug users, they’re not throwing them on the street. But we don’t see a lot of those brought back, to be honest,” Magliocca said. “Usually it’s our diabetics.”
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