March 26, 2019

Syringe Exchange Programs (SEPs) Work

Wes Luckey, Deputy Director

In 2018, more than 22,000 Benton-Franklin counties residents had an opioid prescription, according to the state's Opioid Database. This was the highest prescription count among all the GCACH Local Health Improvement Networks (LHINs).  Predictably, some of these patients will misuse or abuse their prescriptions and eventually become addicted, even to heroin. Around 80% of those using heroin first misused prescription drugs. And of all the street drugs, heroin causes the most physical harm, the most social harm and leads to the greatest dependence among users. We are not immune from this epidemic, and the personal stories of tragedy and loss are devastating.

Tackling this will be complicated and involve many organizations, including EMS, law enforcement, hospitals, primary care, mental health, substance use treatment, transportation, housing and other social service programs. It must also include Syringe Exchange Programs (SEPs). Simply put, SEPs work. People who participated in SEPs were 5 times more likely to enter drug treatment and 3.5 times more likely to cease injecting compared to non-participants, according to the CDC (2018). 

But they are not without controversy. An SEP program that has recently re-opened in Benton-Franklin Counties has generated fear among some local residents. Feeling fear is normal, but sometimes our response to fear is irrational. Many people have a fear flying, yet people are 2,000 times more likely to die as a driver or passenger in an automobile than as a passenger on a commercial flight.

Stigmatizing those who are affected, rushing to judgment before a program is implemented, or ignoring or misrepresenting the current evidence won’t solve this serious problem. It won’t improve public health or stop the spread of AIDS and Hepatitis. And it won’t improve the lives of patients or their families affected by this. To address this crisis, we must identify what has been shown to work to curb addiction and then focus our efforts in a coordinated joint response that tackles the issues at hand. And part of this response must include Syringe Exchange Programs. Accordingly, the GCACH supports the many SEPs across its region, including the efforts within Benton-Franklin Counties to re-open a Syringe Exchange Program there.