Controversy Surrounding Needle Exchange Programs

Controversy Surrounding Needle Exchange Programs

The needle exchange program (NEP) was first introduced in the 80s as an effort to promote public safety between regular injection drug users (IDU) so as to lessen the risk factors for diseases such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis. Regular injection drug users were and are still expected to turn in their used needles in exchange for new hypodermic needles and associated equipment such as alcohol swabs and sterilized water at little or no cost. These community-based programs also facilitate a safe disposal of used needles and syringes.

There are approximately 185 needle exchange programs (NEP) operating in 38 states and in addition to exchanging sterile syringes for contaminated ones, 97% of these programs provide a wide range of health services, that include, but not limited to HIV counseling and testing, prevention education for sexually transmitted diseases, tuberculosis screening, referral to substance abuse treatment, to mention a few.

The one-time use of sterile syringes remains the most effective way to limit HIV transmission and the contraction and spreading of various fatal blood-borne diseases linked to injection drug use. A national survey of NEPs found that they have succeeded in getting rid of millions of used syringes from communities and the rampant HIV infections have so far been averted as a direct result of the use of needle exchange.

While there are all these reported positive outcomes, one possible negative outcome is; with the perception of a lowered risk of infections, needle exchange programs are deemed as a way to promote more illegal drug use. These programs have been successful in harm minimization but not without controversies. Health workers are reporting that regular injection drug users have been refusing to use a new batch of syringes from Terumo and other manufacturers at various needle exchange programs claiming that not only are the needles too blunt and too flexible, but also that the tips are snapping off in their peoples’ arms causing injuries to their veins and blood spillage problems while in the process of injecting the drugs. That thought is most certainly cringe-worthy and life-threatening.

As Terumo continues to claim that the complaints are both baseless and false, the gravity of this public health disaster has seen many drug users require surgery to remove needle tips stuck in their arms. They are now demanding for the old stock of needles that were given to them before the Terumo syringes, and if their local needle program does not stock these syringes, they are either seeking other alternatives or reverting to needle sharing – a practice that carries a high risk of acquiring and transmitting HIV and many other infectious diseases.

The assumption with addicts is that the needles they have used in the past are always the best for the job, and if the problem is not resolved soon, we can expect to see more intravenous drug-related deaths and health problems such as blood-borne diseases as well as abscesses, cellulitis, collapsed veins, and sepsis, caused by unsafe and unsanitary injecting.

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