By Gail Barouh
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, well over a quarter of a million injection drug users have actual AIDS diagnoses, many more are undiagnosed or HIV positive.
It is estimated that 9% of new HIV infections are among intravenous drug users. In addition, HIV has disproportionately impacted minorities and women directly or indirectly due to injection drug use. The cost in health care, lost productivity, accidents and crime is estimated at billions of dollars a year.
To help stop the spread of HIV in the Intravenous Drug Use (IDU) community, LIAAC is participating in a needle voucher program. The program is funded through the “Communities of Color” grant and is instituted through our “Project REACH.” The IDU community can be a difficult one to pin down and just finding clients to give vouchers to can be daunting. People are usually not willing to talk to strangers about their illegal drug use habits. Our professional outreach staff track down clients and give them vouchers that can be redeemed for new needles at participating local Walgreen Pharmacies. Outreach staff educate clients on the dangers of sharing needles, which is how HIV is spread. The vouchers give clients the opportunity to get new, clean needles, preventing transmission of HIV and other infectious diseases. The pharmacies have cross-referenced information to ensure the vouchers are being used, and being used by the clients who are supposed to be using them. Client identification is issued to present to pharmacists and law enforcement agents. This identification helps explain to law enforcement agents why clients may be in possession of a clean unused syringe and acts as a distribution double-checking mechanism between the agency and pharmacists. The voucher program helps ensure that dirty needles will not be reused, but also that the needles will be dispose of properly once used.
A voucher programs like this one can be controversial and there are certainly legitimate arguments against them. Many in the community are concerned that it may create the appearance of encouraging drug abuse. However, at LIAAC we approach this problem with two clear and common goals: reduce injection drug use and reduce the spread of HIV. Outreach staff that distribute vouchers are risk reduction professionals who provide referrals to drug treatment, medical care and other resources, and can offer a degree of counseling on site. Evidence from 20 years of research shows that programs similar to ours prevent, control and ultimately reduce prevalence of HIV and other blood-borne infections among injecting drug users. They have proven to be an effective part of a comprehensive strategy to reduce the incidence of HIV transmission
Without a doubt, reducing the spread of HIV is a national priority and LIAAC is an active partner in this mission. If you, or someone you know is interested in this program call our hotline at 1-877-865-4222.
Although this video is not for our specific program, it does a good job of giving you an idea of how our program works.