Effort begins to reduce HIV, hepatitis C transmission

Clean needles will be available to drug users

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After several years in the making, Wilson County’s first Syringe Exchange Program officially launched Monday. Health officials say the implementation of the program is a direct response to the heroin and opioid epidemic here.

The effort, which will also be used to connect heroin users to treatment, is aimed to help protect the community from diseases associated with dirty needle use including hepatitis C and HIV.

“The objective is to provide clean needles and supplies in an effort to reduce new diagnoses of HIV and hepatitis C as well as provide awareness and support to reduce barriers to avenues for treatment and recovery support,” said Erin Day, Wilson County Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition.

Syringe Exchange Services will be available at three locations including the Wilson County Health Department, Wilson’s new Recovery Concepts Community Center (RC3) and on call at OIC of Wilson.

Heroin users oftentimes use and share dirty needles to induce the drug, posing health risks to themselves and others. This program will give users a way to exchange those dirty needles for unused clean ones.

Wilson is now one of several counties across the state that have implemented a syringe exchange program. A user can walk into any of the designated locations and register for the program.

“Everything is confidential,” said Wilson County Health Director Teresa Ellen. “Like any other health service, no information will be shared.”

Users will receive a kit that includes clean syringes, small sharps container and alcohol swabs. Brochures, condoms and other items will be a part of the kit as well. Officials hope to also provide users with a naloxone kit, a life-saving antidote that reverses opioid overdoses.

“Our main objective here is to prevent the spread of HIV, STDs and hepatitis C and to develop relationships so we can help some of our participants enter in to treatment and recovery,” Ellen said.

The brochure includes information about signs of an opioid overdose, preventing an overdose, responding to an overdose and way HIV and hepatitis are transmitted. Information about how to clean a syringe if an addict has to reuse it will also be provided.

Research shows that these types of programs decrease drug use because officials are on the front lines and are able to connect addicts to treatment. Program participants are five times more likely to enter drug treatment than non-program participants, according to the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition. Hepatitis C is a blood-borne virus and not curable. Most people become infected with it by sharing needles or other injection equipment, according to health officials.

The heroin epidemic is causing a spike in hepatitis C cases throughout the country and in North Carolina. As officials here combat the heroin crisis, the syringe exchange program is being implemented to prevent another one. Participants will also receive a card that identifies them as a part of the program. There is also an agreement with health officials and law enforcement that says if an officer sees that a user has that card, he will not be arrested for having drug paraphernalia, officials said.

“We want this program to be successful and possibly help save a life,” Ellen said.

The health department in partnership with OIC of Wilson will also provide free HIV and hepatitis C testing.

Thanks to a $5,000 grant by the Healthcare Foundation of Wilson, officials were able to launch the program here. Program partnerships included the health department, substance prevention coalition, the Wilson County Sheriff’s Office, Wilson Police Department, RC3 and the JCans Foundation.