The spread of HIV and other infectious diseases is greatly attributed to the irresponsible use of needles. This is part of the reason why more than 1.5 million free needles were distributed to 3,000 drug users in the first 18 months of a Columbus initiative.
The initiative, dubbed as the Safe Point syringe access program, will encourage addicts to enter rehabilitation and save those who overdose on opioids. The program, which is administered by Equitas Health with Columbus Public Health oversight, started in January 2016, and people have been flooding in to take part.
According to Joel Diaz, Equitas spokesman, the two centers which are open for a total of 10.5 hours every week to distribute needles, they at times reach the near capacity level.
“We are reaching people and we are getting people connected,” Diaz said. “This program is proving to be successful.”
Billed as a “harm reduction program,” Safe Point has three main goals, according to Nancie Bechtel and Melissa Green of Columbus Public Health.
The prevention of new HIV and hepatitis C infections are the major priorities that advocates are concerned about since they can be spread by sharing needles. The advocates are also looking into offering drug users access to substance-abuse, mental-health, and other services; and also assisting addicts in accessing naloxone, a medication used to save the lives of users who overdose on opioids.
Reports indicate that participants are allowed a maximum of 150 syringes every two weeks, with a cap of 300 needles per month. The clients are assessed at every visit to determine the number of needles they need and their ability to access naloxone, which Safe Point provides to clients in need while supplies are available.
“It gives people hope,” said Bechtel, assistant health commissioner, and chief nursing officer. “It helps make that human-to-human connection so they will move down that path to getting into treatment.”
Approximately half of Safe Point clients have been referred to alcohol and drug programs. And it’s likely that hundreds of lives have been saved by making sure that addicts have access to naloxone, said Green, harm reduction program manager.
It turns out that the program has improved infection control since HIV cases have been going down in central Ohio, but the region has yet to see a drop in hepatitis C. Programs can take six to seven years to impact such numbers, Bechtel said.
The senior policy analyst for Columbus City Council President Zach Klein, Amy O’Grady, revealed that harm-reduction programs are part of the Franklin County Opioid Action Plan.
“As long as we’re putting ourselves in a position as a county to really make sure that we’re moving forward together and that we’re taking every opportunity we can to help people in the community, then we’re doing the right thing,” she said.
“Research has shown that an access program is much more effective at getting injection drug users engaged with services, which ultimately leads to trust, hope and the ultimate goal — recovery,” he said. “We are meeting users where they are at in their journey.”