The Orange County Health Department has been quietly exchanging needles for drug users and diabetic patients since April.
The Safe Syringe Program only became official when Gov. Pat McCrory signed a new state law July 11 outlining the requirements under which local agencies could offer needle, or syringe, exchanges.
It’s exciting to be able to offer a program that’s addressing “a large but hidden and stigmatized public health issue,” said Robin Gasparini, county nursing supervisor.
“Having this law passed allows us to really go out there and actively partner with the community about our program and share information,” she said, “and I think it’s really critical for people to know that there’s a safe avenue.”
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They are still working with the state to amend a portion of the law that prohibits using public money to buy needles, hypodermic syringes and other injection supplies.
The law also requires programs to address the spread of HIV, hepatitis and other bloodborne diseases; reduce needle-stick injuries to public safety workers; and encourage drug users to seek treatment.
The N.C. Harm Reduction Coalition reports that one out of every three officers will be stuck accidentally with a needle during their careers, potentially exposing them to HIV and Hepatitis B and C. Roughly 28 percent will be stuck more than once, the group reported.
Gasparini noted North Carolina has had a significant problem with hepatitis, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting the number of cases had increased more than 200 percent between 2007 and 2011. More than half of the hepatitis transmissions reported are traced to shared needles, she said.
Low-income residents and those with chronic illnesses or who face stereotypes when buying needles through a pharmacy also may reuse needles, she said, which raises the risk of infections and bruising.
The new law also is expected to help officers stay safe as they patrol the streets, Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue said.
“Law enforcement officers, I think, pretty universally support the notion that a needle exchange program can help people get directed to resources they need to perhaps address their addiction,” he said, “and can also reduce the likelihood that dirty needles are out there that can harm people out in the community or officers that may encounter users.”
Five people have visited the Hillsborough and Chapel Hill clinics since April to drop off dirty needles and pick up a bag of 20 clean ones, Gasparini said. Now, dirty needles can be dropped into white metal boxes located in both buildings.
They aren’t tracking personal details or the reasons someone might trade their needles, she said, but they do know at least one client is diabetic and has had trouble buying needles through a pharmacy. Two others who picked up needles also got tested for HIV, she said.
Law enforcement officers “play a huge role in helping us build trust with our clients,” Gasparini said. “I would ask for their support to help us connect to the community and help the community members connect to our program based on need.”
The state law requires programs to include educational materials about the prevention of overdoses; HIV, AIDS and viral hepatitis transmission; and drug abuse. The materials also must address treatment and referrals for mental illness and substance abuse.
Business cards with information about Orange County’s Safe Syringe Program have been sitting on the front desk of the Orange County Sheriff’s Office for months. The Carrboro Police Department also has received the cards, police spokesman Capt. Chris Atack said.
The Orange County Health Department has set up white, metal dropboxes for depositing dirty needles at its clinics. The boxes can be found at 2501 Homestead Road in Chapel Hill and 300 W. Tryon St. in Hillsborough. A bag of clean needles and other items is available at each clinic’s front desk.
More information is available by calling 919-245-2400.