Needle exchange programs have been around for decades, but they have never been popular with the public. The basic idea of needle exchange programs is that IV drug users can dispose of used needles and pick up sterile needles to replace them. This is meant to reduce the spread of bloodborne diseases such as HIV and hepatitis B and C. It also means there are fewer used syringes lying around that might stick a curious child or hapless sanitation worker. People tend to object to needle exchange programs for two main reasons. They see them enabling IV drug use by supplying paraphernalia and they don’t want needle exchange programs attracting IV drug users to their neighborhoods. Fewer than half of Americans currently support needle exchange programs. However, given the effectiveness of these programs, support should really be higher. Many different aspects of needle exchange programs have been studied over the years. A study of the first American needle exchange program, started in 1988 in Tacoma, Washington, found that using the exchanges was associated with a 60 percent drop in the risk of getting hepatitis B or C. Another study in New York in the early 1990s found that IV drug users who didn’t use a needle exchange program were three times more likely to get HIV. Other studies have found similar results. This lower risk of blood borne infection doesn’t just affect IV drug users. It also affects their sexual partners and babies. About a third of all HIV cases are directly or indirectly related to IV drug use, so a significant reduction in the spread of HIV among IV drug users also means a significant reduction in the spread of HIV overall, which is good for everyone. While needle exchanges are primarily beneficial from a public health perspective, they are also beneficial from a financial perspective. Lifetime treatment of HIV and hepatitis B and C is expensive and that cost is reflected in taxes and insurance premiums. Studies into the cost effectiveness of needle exchange programs have found that every dollar invested in these programs saves six dollars in HIV treatment. That’s a significant savings overall. Despite this huge savings in lives and money, almost no federal money has gone to needle exchange programs over the past 30 years. In fact, they are illegal in many states. People often worry that these programs encourage drug use, but many studies have found that this is not true. In fact, they often reduce drug use. Needle exchange programs are often a point of contact between people with experience in addiction treatment and IV drug users who want to quit but don’t know how. These programs can be a lifeline for people who want help.
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