After 10 years, NJ to expand needle exchange programs
Ten years ago, New Jersey launched a pilot program that established a handful of needle exchange programs designed to help reduce rates of HIV and other infections among drug addicts and the general public.
Many other states had already embraced needle exchange, and all five programs that have developed in urban New Jersey centers have shown positive results, studies show. Program officials said they have helped thousands of patients and distributed hundreds of thousands of clean syringes during each year of operation.
But drug addiction remains a crisis in New Jersey, and lawyers say 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 down these programs and extend their reach to communities around New Jersey. A measurement (S-1266) unanimously approved Monday by members of the Senate Health Committee, chaired by Vitale, would make needle cleaning efforts permanent and allow them to operate in any willing municipality. An Assembly version of the bill awaits a first hearing.
“The pilot project was just a compromise to get it passed by the legislature,” said Vitale. At the time, some legislators were concerned about the impact these programs would have on drug use and quality of life. “We know it works – and it needs to be extended to as many places as possible.” Similar efforts to expand the program in the previous two legislative sessions have never resulted in a full vote in both chambers. Needle exchange efforts are currently underway in Newark, Jersey City, Paterson, Camden and Atlantic City; Asbury Park is also allowed to have a program, but it is not operational.
Nationally, there are now some 228 needle exchange programs in 35 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and some Indian nations, according to the North American Needle Exchange Network, which follows these programs and advocates for their expansion. More than half of the states or territories provide public funding for the programs. Overall, these efforts reduced the transmission of blood-borne diseases but did not lead 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 needle sharing was the leading 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 risk that drug users will pass on HIV, hepatitis C and other blood-borne diseases when they share dirty drug “functions”.
The lack of clean needles has clearly “fueled the intensity of our HIV epidemic”, agreed Alex Torres Marrero, a leader of the HIV / AIDS epidemic. Jacinthe Sida Foundation. “The needle exchange really works. I can tell you the thousands of lives we have saved.
In addition to free access to clean syringes, these programs are designed to provide a safe and welcoming entry to other services. Addicts can access low-cost physical and mental health services, HIV testing and education, and, if ready, detox and
drug treatment programs. Vitale said many drug addicts have taken this path to cleanse themselves.
Friends of drug addicts, family members and the community at large also benefit, supporters said. A representative for the New Jersey Association of Assistant Fire Chiefs said pilot programs have reduced the number of dirty needles firefighters encounter on rooftops, in homes and along roadsides. Pricks from used needles had become a problem for emergency responders in some communities.
“We helped clean dirty needles from the streets of Camden City,” said Martha Chavis, executive director of the Camden Area Health Education Center, which manages the needle exchange program there. The organization also had, until this year, the state’s only mobile needle-cleaning effort, a van that drove around town twice a week. Chavis said she often receives thanks from children, parents, healthcare providers and others for their efforts to reduce the danger of dirty needles in the community.
The bill to expand the program would allocate $ 95,000 to the Department of Health to oversee local efforts. It would also require the DOH to create an annual program report for the administration, legislators and other stakeholders.