Staff Columnist

Shifting thoughts on needle exchanges

Iowa still one of 15 states that prohibits proven harm reduction strategy

A team leader with Iowa Harm Reduction Coalition sets up a table during a mobile outreach event in Cedar Rapids on Monday, April 23, 2018. The organization gives out free Naloxone kits, which can reverse an opioid overdose, as well as risk reduction kits that include sterile water, cookers, ties, antibiotic wipes, band aids and condoms. Iowa law prohibits the group from providing syringes. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
A team leader with Iowa Harm Reduction Coalition sets up a table during a mobile outreach event in Cedar Rapids on Monday, April 23, 2018. The organization gives out free Naloxone kits, which can reverse an opioid overdose, as well as risk reduction kits that include sterile water, cookers, ties, antibiotic wipes, band aids and condoms. Iowa law prohibits the group from providing syringes. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

Our perceptions on issues must always be challenged.

Fifteen years ago, I lambasted the idea of offering free syringes to people with drug addictions.

The subject of needle exchanges came up in a mom’s group (of all places) when one member shared a relative’s addiction and her hope that needle exchanges would be legalized. I reminded the group that funding is finite, and added I would question an official who chose free needles for addicts when so many other “more worthy” needs existed.

I’m not proud of that moment; I spoke honestly, but did so knowing it would sting. Regret, it seems, is an excellent preservative for memories.

Not only did I listen more intently when I encountered other conversations about needle exchanges, but I eventually began to seek out information. Even so, my perspective was slow to shift — frustratingly so, to hear some of my friends tell it.

Becoming more than a reluctant advocate for exchanges meant overcoming stigmas about addicts and addiction I didn’t know I held. The key was recognizing addiction is a public health issue, not something that always necessitates a punative response.

Exchanges provide a place where people can access clean syringes and dispose of dirty ones. They connect people in need with professionals who can provide addiction treatment, vaccinations and testing. The programs combat the spread of blood-borne diseases like HIV and hepatitis C and reduce inappropriate disposal of dirty syringes in public spaces. They do not enable or increase drug use.

But, please, don’t just take my word for it. Go forth and read research from academics, the World Health Organization, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Needle exchanges are smart and cost-effective public health efforts because they pay dividends for people battling drug addiction and communities that would otherwise bear the monetary burden of ignorance and neglect — increased rates of infection and disease, and greater need for charity health services, emergency services and more.

Spend a dollar now to save five later; sounds like cost-effective public policy.

Yet, the Statehouse hasn’t gotten on board. Despite the introduction of four recent bills to legalize needle exchanges, Iowa remains one of 15 states with a ban in place. Although lawmakers passed a bill this year to battle the ongoing opioid crisis, a proposed amendment that would have supported needle exchanges was ruled not germane and denied discussion.

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Meanwhile, the state has seen a 237 percent increase in heptitis C cases among those 30 and under since 2010.

The number of Iowans receiving a new HIV diagnosis dropped slightly in 2017, but it was still the second-highest year on record. (The year before, 2016, holds the record.) State health officials also say an estimated 400 more Iowans have the infection but haven’t yet been diagnosed.

Iowa lawmakers don’t have to follow the same path as officials in Indiana and Massachusetts who were forced to react to instead of prevent a public health crisis. They just have to be willing to challenge their perspective.

• Comments: @LyndaIowa, (319) 368-8513, lynda.waddington@thegazette.com

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