Why needle exchange programs work

 By Kara Blake
As a vocal advocate for harm reduction and needle exchange services, I have often been asked, “why needle exchange?” To public health professionals, needle exchange programs (NEPs) are an obvious and urgently needed intervention. Research study after research study continues to show conclusively that NEPs reduce the transmission of HIV and viral hepatitis, are tremendously cost-effective, and provide a range of other services that benefit the participants and greater community. Even though the evidence is clear, public and political pushback against NEPs persists across the country. Cape Cod is no exception.
Without proper information, it might make sense that a citizen or politician may be resistant to the idea of a needle exchange. How could this intervention possibly support drug users? Won’t this only perpetuate their addiction and its consequences? Won’t this facility increase crime and drug use in my community? The answer, plainly, across the board, is no.
Someone who accesses a needle exchange is making what can be the first contact with a professional about their addiction. Recognizing that not all people using drugs are ready, willing or able to stop using at that moment, staff compassionately discuss and educate participants on the potential harms associated with their drug use, and how to reduce those harms. Rather than shame drug users and require abstinence, staff meet and talk with people where they are in their addiction without judgment. This approach is called “harm reduction.” Through such relationships, participants are also able to access services such as screening for HIV, hepatitis C and sexually transmitted infections, access to Narcan and overdose prevention, enrollment in health insurance, and referrals to substance use treatment and medical care.
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