Medically Reviewed By: Benjamin Caleb Williams RN, BA, CEN
Written By: Gary Bowers
Article Updated: 12/02/2021
Across America, needle/syringe exchange programs are helping to avert a worsening public health crisis. This guide will help you understand why needle exchange programs are an important component of public safety, and how to access and utilize these vital programs.
In This Article:
Intravenous (IV) drug use – that is, when drugs are injected directly into the bloodstream – is a public health concern with far-reaching social and economic impacts. In addition to the damaging effects of drug use, the needles or syringes used to inject drugs – typically heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine – become dangerously tainted after a single use. If tainted needles are used repeatedly, or shared between people, new dangers emerge in the form of infectious diseases like HIV, and hepatitis C. Other costly health concerns related to sharing needles include blood and heart infections, skin abscesses, bacterial infections.
Finding a needle exchange program near you is the first step. If we strip away the stigma, misunderstanding, and uninformed criticism of needle exchange, it can be easy to find the right resources for these programs and other substance use resources.
The term ‘needle exchange program’ is a broad term we’ll use in this guide, but there are a number of different programs and services that would fall under the general umbrella of needle exchange programs. These programs may often be referred to as Syringe Services Programs (SSPs), Syringe Exchange Programs (SEPs), and Needle Exchange Programs (NEPs).
Simply put, IV drug users can bring used needles/syringes to designated locations and exchange them for clean, unused needles.
These programs are community-based, and some locations may offer additional services. The primary goals of needle exchange programs are:
—Provide Clean Needles to Drug Users: This practice can reduce the transmission of communicable diseases and harmful infections. A reduction in communicable diseases benefits everyone, even those who do not inject drugs. HIV, in particular, can be contracted via tainted needles AND sexual intercourse. Providing clean needles for IV drug users can have the downstream impact of reducing exposure of infectious diseases to non-drug users.
—Safe Disposal of Used Needles: Used needles that are not discarded safely pose a threat to the community and the environment. Needle exchange programs help reduce these dangers by ensuring that used needles are disposed of in accordance with local biohazard disposal laws.
Needle exchange can save lives. There are well over 200 needle exchange programs located nationwide. Of those programs, about 91 percent of them were independent facilities that obtained legal authorization to operate as needle exchanges. Annually, it’s estimated that at least 36 million syringes are provided through needle exchange programs nationwide, with most of these given out at the larger programs located in urban centers.
Try using our interactive map below to find a needle exchange program near you:
The public benefits of needle exchange programs extend well beyond simply the exchanging of needles.
In addition to the life-saving benefits of providing clean needles to existing drug users, these programs are often the face of addiction recovery in their communities.
When someone visits a needle exchange program facility, they will be exposed to tools and resources that can help them recover from the mental and physical tyranny of substance abuse.
The programs and resources will vary from location to location but would include services such as:
By connecting people in need with services designed to help, needle exchange programs can save lives and serve the community.
The benefits of needle exchange programs have been proved time and time again. The efficacy and benefits of needle exchange programs have been recognized by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA). Internationally, countries like Portugal have seen a reduction in IV drug users and AIDs diagnoses since the implementation of needle exchange programs.
The CDC and NIDA have reported recently on the benefits of needle exchange programs:
The benefits of needle exchange are plentiful. Finding a needle exchange program near you can potentially save lives.
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