Durham County soon will join 26 programs across the state providing free, safe syringes to fight the spread of HIV and other diseases and to prevent opioid overdoses.
The Durham County Department of Public Health has set a tentative date of March 15 to begin dispensing the free kits, said Katie Mallette, the allied health division director for the department. The kits will be available at the department’s office at 414 E. Main St. The department also will offer the kits to organizations like Bull City United for distribution in the community.
The clean syringes will come with, among other things, a sharps container for used syringes, along with educational materials about drug-abuse prevention; prevention of HIV, hepatitis and other diseases; mental health services and substance abuse services.
Naloxone also will be made available as part of the safe-syringe program. Naloxone can reverse an overdose from opioids, which include pharmaceutical painkillers like oxycodone and vicodin, and illegal drugs like heroin. Naloxone comes in injectable form and nasal spray. Durham will be offering the nasal spray, which is easier to use, said Mallette.
“We’re not just providing clean syringes,” said Arlene Seña, medical and laboratory director for the department. “We’re doing this in the context of providing services,” such as referrals for HIV testing, mental health and substance abuse and other health issues, Seña said.
Durham’s safe syringe program will join other efforts that have been established since a 2016 General Assembly law that lets government agencies and nongovernmental organizations establish the programs. The legislation requires that these programs make naloxone available, or refer those who get free needles to a naloxone program. The law also requires agencies providing the syringes and naloxone kits to make annual reports to the state.
The safe syringes programs are not places where users can safely shoot their drugs. Public health departments and other agencies also are making the naloxone kits available as preventives, not for immediate emergencies. Someone who has a friend or family member with a drug problem may ask for the naloxone kits for use in case an overdose happens.
Both Durham and Orange County health departments already allow people to request the naloxone kits. Making them available with safe syringes is intended to reach more potential drug users and get them treatment, Seña said. “We want to provide naloxone through as many organizations as necessary to increase accessibility in the community, because we know naloxone will prevent deaths” from overdoses, she said.
The safe syringe program is one of several responses Durham and other communities are making to the problem of opioid abuse. Last week, the Durham County Sheriff’s Office began making naloxone available through its school resource officers working in five high schools, the School for Creative Studies and Holton Career & Resource Center.
In 2016, an average of four residents a day died from opioid overdoses in North Carolina, according to state figures. Unintentional opioid deaths have increased from just over 100 deaths in 1999 to over 1,380 in 2016.
Orange County established its safe syringe program in April 2016, before the enabling legislation passed, in response to an increase in hepatitis C infections, said Robin Gasparini, public health nursing supervisor for the Orange County Health Department. Orange County uses the injectable form of naloxone, Gasparini said. Before dispensing naloxone, the department asks anyone requesting it to undergo a short lesson in how to use the kits properly, she said.
Gasparini and Seña stressed that their safe syringe programs are not the same as needle-exchange programs. People may return used syringes (Orange County has drop boxes at its offices in Hillsborough and Chapel Hill), but they are not required to return them as was the case under the needle exchange program. Public health agencies are moving away from needle exchange programs because of evidence that safe syringe programs are more effective, Gasparini said.
The one-to-one exchange programs “prevent people from coming and getting the resources they need” because of privacy concerns, Gasparini said. She has seen people who participated in the safe syringe program approach the department about drug rehabilitation and other services. “When they are ready to seek services, they have a trusted foundation where they can seek those resources,” she said.
For more information
▪ In Durham, call 919-560-7600 or visit the office at 414 E. Main St.
▪ In Orange County, call 919-245-2400. Offices are located at 300 W. Tryon St., Hillsborough, or 2501 Homestead Road, Chapel Hill.
Safe syringe program numbers
▪ 3,983 people received services from a syringe exchange program during the first year
▪ Programs distributed 1,154,420 sterile syringes
▪ Programs distributed 5,682 naloxone kits to people directly impacted by drug use
▪ Programs made an additional 1,311 referrals for naloxone at pharmacies and health departments
▪ Participants reported more than 2,187 overdose reversals to safe syringe programs
Source: “North Carolina Safer Syringe Initiative” 2016-2017 annual report