County Syringe Exchanges Boast More Than One Thousand Enrollees, But Some Problems Remain

Aug 23, 2016

Credit deepfruit / https://www.flickr.com/photos/slippek/

More than a year after the first one was established, more than one thousand people are now enrolled in Indiana’s several county-run needle exchange programs, and the Indiana State Department of Health is crediting them as one of the most effective ways to combat the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C.

Five counties—Scott, Fayette, Monroe, Wayne and Madison—have established syringe-exchange programs, or SEPs, to curb the rate of infectious disease caused by intravenous drug use. The largest exchanges—in Scott and Monroe Counties—boast approximately 450 enrollees each. Madison County’s program has 102 total participants, and Fayette County supplies 27 people. Wayne County’s is slated to start this month.

More than a dozen other counties are exploring the possibility of implementing or seeking approval for their own programs.

The state health department credits the SEP in Scott County in particular for curbing the spread of HIV – the spread of which had risen to epidemic proportions –as well as being one of the most effective ways to link addicted people to treatment opportunities.

“Syringe exchange has been a powerful tool and is largely responsible for the fact that the number of HIV-positive individuals is 205,” said Deputy State Health Commissioner Jennifer Walthall before a House study committee last week, adding that the county identified 528 “contacts,” or potential HIV positive people, in Scott County. In April 2015, at the height of Scott County’s crisis, there were 26 new cases diagnosed in a week, about the same number than have been diagnosed since.

However, officials caution one size doesn’t fit all with exchanges.

In Scott and Monroe counties, mobile units have proven very successful, but a similar mobile program in Fayette County needed to be shut down because of the stigma attached to visiting the van.

Monroe County exchange administrator Kathy Hewitt said the mobile van there, operated by a nonprofit called the Indiana Recovery Alliance, worked because it had a history in the community of providing other services, such as winter coats.

“When they go to a site and do outreach, people don’t know exactly why people are getting on the van,” Hewitt said. “It could be for syringes, but it could be that they need some hygiene supplies.”

State Department of Health officials do note difficulties the SEPs have had in gaining trust in their respective communities.

And they’re strapped for cash because Indiana code still forbids the use of state dollars to establish syringe exchanges, so they must instead rely on other sources, such as grants, to pay for services.

ISDH spokeswoman Jeni O’Malley said although the department lauds the work of SEPs, it can’t take a position on whether the state should provide funding for such programs.