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Stokes: Our needle exchange program saves lives -- like mine (column)

4:05 PM, Jul. 5, 2013  |  Comments
Needle exchange saves lives and can help addicts get the treatment they need.
Needle exchange saves lives and can help addicts get the treatment they need.
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Unfortunately, the number of deaths due to heroin or opiate overdose is increasing. This is not just a problem in Wisconsin's larger cities, but here in Wausau and central Wisconsin as well. Today, people struggling with opiate addiction and experiencing overdoses come from diverse backgrounds. It is all too common for these growing ranks to include teens and young adults as well as mothers and fathers. The face of a "typical" heroin user has changed over the past 10 years. I am someone with long-term recovery (28 years) from a heroin addiction. Years ago, injection drug use was taboo even among other drug using communities. The initiation of injection did not occur until an individual had many years of drug use/abuse. Today, we see a revolving door of young injectors (18, 19 & 20 years old).

I know. I see these people, daily, come to the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin, where we offer a needle exchange program. The participants we see come from all walks of life, all ages and races.

Here in central Wisconsin, people struggling with addiction to opiates - including those who are actively seeking drug counseling and treatment - find accessing drug treatment is difficult and expensive. There are not many resources available for uninsured people to get the services they need. The Wausau area has only one methadone provider and often has waiting lists.

And for many addicts, successfully kicking their opiate addiction is the hardest thing they've ever had to do. Many people who begin treatment fail and begin their drug use again. Often they repeating this cycle many times before finally breaking the cycle of addiction.

I believe recovery from an addiction is a process. Most do not maintain complete abstinence after their first treatment experience. Many need multiple treatments.

I needed three. After the third attempt, it finally stuck. And I have been busy trying to give back to communities I have always taken from in the past.

I am aware of people who have been through more than 10 treatments - and, finally, many of them have found success.

Solving the country's drug problem must remain a priority. But while elected officials and public health leaders continue to have this important discussion, it is critical that we save as many people as possible from overdose, HIV, and hepatitis C and afford them the chance to eliminate their drug use.

Needle exchange saves lives

One of the services we provide at the ARCW is a clean needle exchange program known as Lifepoint. Lifepoint is in place to ensure that as many lives as possible are saved by getting used needles off the street and out of the community, preventing new HIV infections and linking drug users to treatment.

Lifepoint is a needle exchange program, but it does not simply hand out needles to anyone. Participation in the program encourages injection drug users to bring back their used needles prior to receiving new ones. Use of clean needles helps prevent the spread of diseases including HIV among injection drug users, but the program serves other purposes as well. We offer HIV and hepatitis C testing, as well as referral for addiction treatment services to every participant in every encounter.

While needle exchange programs are proven to reduce HIV infection rates among injection drug users - they've fallen by 67 percent in Wisconsin since the beginning of Lifepoint in 1994 - ARCW will not conduct Lifepoint in communities where it is not welcome, or in neighborhoods where it is not appropriate. We regularly work with public health and law enforcement agencies to educate them about Lifepoint and have them invite us to provide the service in their communities.

Many people do not understand the public health impact that providing clean needles can have on a community. When we have an individual who is interested in obtaining drug treatment services, our staff does everything it can to assist them in accessing those services as soon as possible. We also know that an individual is more successful in treatment when they are HIV/HCV-free.

A growing need

As the number of opiate-related overdoses has steadily increased, Lifepoint now trains participants to identify someone experiencing an overdose and how to administer naloxone to them. This otherwise harmless liquid immediately reverses the effects of an opiate overdose and is literally a lifesaver for anyone suffering the effects of overdose. Participants are also trained how to conduct rescue breathing and how to call for emergency medical services (911).

In 2012, ARCW trained 931 people to respond to opiate overdoses. We also received reports of 787 "peer saves," or cases where community members assisted someone who had experienced an overdose by calling 911, providing rescue breathing or administering naloxone. And we know that not all of our participants have reported each save, so the real numbers may be even higher.

In the Wausau service area we trained 29 individuals and have 23 peer saves reported. This means that someone's son or daughter, brother or sister, or mom or dad received more time to begin accessing the treatment they need.

The ARCW's needle exchange and training programs can help save lives and, ultimately, help people kick their addictions. Those are outcomes we can all support.

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