Evidence backs up value of syringe exchanges

Published 7:08 am Saturday, September 7, 2019


The Advocate-Messenger

Boyle County is one of 54 in Kentucky at increased risk for an outbreak of HIV and hepatitis C among injection drug users; it’s also one of 55 Kentucky counties that have a syringe exchange program in place.

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Many in Boyle, including this newspaper, have long believed the syringe exchange program is one of many right choices being made to address substance abuse and help people get clean and lead productive lives. Now a new study published last month has found significant evidence that backs up our beliefs.

The study published in the Journal of Rural Health studied three Kentucky counties with syringe exchanges and found that some drug users who utilized the local exchange programs were more likely to enter treatment for their drug use.

The study doesn’t claim syringe exchanges are a cure-all, nor should it — substance abuse is always a complex problem that requires a different set of solutions for each individual. But it does find that syringe exchanges “may play an important role in supporting confidence and motivation to change substance use behaviors” and they “may be critical venues for integration and expansion of prevention, health promotion and treatment linkage services for this underserved population.”

Of the 186 participants in the study, about 45 percent had used a syringe exchange program more than six times in the last six months. Almost 70 percent said quitting or reducing their substance use was very important, but less than half had high confidence in their ability to ever quit or reduce their substance use.

Building confidence among drug users that they can kick the habit is incredibly important: The study found that individual drug users’ confidence levels played a major role in how successful they were in quitting their drug use.

Syringe exchange programs help build confidence by bringing drug users’ bad habits out of the shadows and showing them there are other options. Hope can be a very powerful confidence builder. Community members can help build hope and confidence, too, by refusing to stigmatize or belittle people with addiction problems and instead offering them compassionate support and encouragement.

The study also found concerning evidence that drug users who have injected methamphetamine did not see the same boost in success as users of other drugs, such as heroin. With methamphetamine use back on the rise now, that could turn into a big problem.

The lack of effectiveness for meth users “reflects a lack of treatment services designed for methamphetamine users, inadequate treatment capacity, as well as the lack of effective medication-assisted treatment for methamphetamine use,” according to the study.”

Providing better treatment for meth users “appears critical” to the success of syringe exchanges, the study’s authors wrote.

The study examined syringe exchanges in Knox, Owsley and Clark counties, so some of the findings could be specific for those communities, but we also know that most syringe exchange programs wind up serving out-of-county users because local users are afraid of seeking help from people who know who they are.

We think the study broadly shows that syringe exchange programs can be helpful in the long run — if they are run well and if administrators are good at identifying and responding to the changing needs of the exchanges’ clients.