Needle Exchanges Are Vital, But There’s A Major Stigma Around Them. Here’s Why.

To combat an outbreak of new HIV transmissions linked to injectable prescription drug abuse, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence issued an executive order today allowing local officials to establish a short-term needle exchange program.

Needle-exchange programs, which give people who abuse an injectable drug the opportunity to exchange dirty needles for clean ones without fear of legal consequence, are banned by state law. But in declaring a public health emergency, Pence can get around the ban in an effort to put a halt to a rash of recent HIV diagnoses — 71 confirmed cases and nine preliminary cases (cases that need to be confirmed with additional testing) linked to the abuse of prescription drugs.

The public health theory behind needle-exchange programs, known as harm reduction, is that providing people with clean syringes reduces disease transmission — one of the most negative consequences of drug abuse and the one with the biggest public health impact. For instance, if a person who abuses injectable drugs contracts HIV or hepatitis C from a dirty needle, they can also pass the diseases on to others who share future needles as well as their sex partner.

Needle exchange programs are also a way to help draw people into social service programs that may eventually help them quit their habit. In a previous story for the Huffington Post on this issue, Adam Carrico, an assistant professor at the University of California, San Francisco described it this way:

“People don’t want to get HIV, but maybe they’re not motivated at that point to abstain from drugs or pursue drug treatment,” he said. “We can use needle exchanges almost like a net to move them into more comprehensive approaches, so that they hopefully become abstinent through biomedical and behavioral approaches that we know work.”

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