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My Turn: Additional restrictions on needle exchange will do more harm than good

  • ZOLL



Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The opioid crisis is a public health emergency in the United States. So declared President Trump, Gov. Baker and the governors of at least five other states, and public health officials at every level of government. The truth of this is indisputable. Earlier this year, new reporting identified the current opioid crisis as the reason that new hepatitis C infections have tripled in areas hardest hit by the epidemic. Data so far suggests the number of overdose deaths could have reached 65,000 in 2016. The CDC reports that 91 Americans are killed by opioid overdoses each day, making this epidemic the leading cause of death for people under the age of 50.

At a time when families and communities are being devastated by the disease of addiction, we must listen to public health experts. For decades, these experts have advocated for easy access to sterile syringes to reduce the spread of HIV, hepatitis C, and other infectious diseases that spread through the sharing of used syringes.

The Greenfield Board of Health listened. Last year, the Board cited the increasing rates of HIV and hepatitis C in Franklin County as one of the reasons they support a syringe access and disposal site in Greenfield. Between 2011 and 2014, Greenfield saw an increase of 60 percent in the rate of hepatitis C. The Board turned to evidence-based interventions provided by programs like Tapestry’s to reduce the spread of disease by increasing access to unused syringes and Narcan (overdose reversal medication), and to make it easier for people to receive critical care, education and support services.

Additional actions at the state level further increased vital access to sterile syringes. In June, the state Supreme Judicial Court ruled that anyone can distribute sterile syringes without the need of official approval. This ruling is a life-saving step forward for Massachusetts communities struggling to combat the devastating impact of the opioid crisis. It provides much-needed support for people struggling with addiction to stay healthy, and it builds upon the progress that public health experts have made when fighting for effective policy change in the opioid epidemic.

A new ordinance being proposed by a Greenfield Town Council member to limit the distribution of sterile syringes would reverse the very progress that is needed to decrease rates of HIV, hepatitis C and overdose deaths in the community. It would create an additional barrier for people who want to use an evidence-based and legal intervention to help reduce the spread of infectious disease. It detracts from the ability of public health officials to respond effectively to the life-threatening effects of the opioid crisis. While this ordinance may seem like a way to enhance safe practices of syringe access, it is in sharp contrast to the reality of how HIV, hepatitis C and overdose deaths happen and are prevented. It also continues the dangerous stigma around services that too often results in increased shame and isolation for people in our community. This shame prevents them from reaching out to get help and receive care to stay healthy and alive.

In the face of an ongoing opioid crisis, we need to support fact-based solutions to a complex problem. We must put public health first. We must support people struggling with addiction and provide them with the information and tools, like sterile syringes and Narcan, to prevent the spread of disease and to keep them from dying of an overdose. We need to prevent the creation of additional barriers to care for those struggling with addiction.

The far-reaching consequences of this public health emergency demands that our community leaders listen to the experts. We must allow people and organizations to use interventions that prevent HIV and hepatitis C and provide education on preventing overdoses to people at risk of witnessing or experiencing one. We must support people struggling with opioid addiction, and provide them with compassion and care to keep them healthy and alive. To be successful in this fight, we must work together to do what we know works to keep our communities healthy.

Cheryl Zoll is the CE O of Tapestry Health.