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Published on November 13, 2015

Needle exchange: Only one part of intervention

Needle exchange: Only one part of intervention

Needle exchange programs on Cape Cod help to lower health risks, regardless of where those programs are located, public health providers told OneCape Health News.

“Needle exchange is part of harm reduction and is very important for patients and our community’s public health,” said Laurel Miller, MD, medical director at Cape Cod Healthcare’s Infectious Disease Clinical Services.

Scientific data overwhelmingly supports needle exchange as an important method in lowering the risk of transmission of infectious diseases like Hepatitis C and HIV, she said. Needle exchange programs also offer safe syringe disposal and overdose prevention education, as well as helping participants access substance abuse treatment services.

Earlier this month, the AIDS Support Group of Cape Cod won a temporary restraining order against the town of Barnstable, allowing its needle exchange program on South Street in Hyannis to remain open.

The program was closed in October by the Barnstable Public Health Division for not receiving state approval to be one of 10 pilot programs, the Cape Cod Times reported. Cap. But a Barnstable Superior Court judge ruled in favor of the AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts and the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, who argued that there would be risk of infectious disease transmission if the program were closed.

Cases of Hepatitis C and HIV have been on the rise in recent years. Increases in both diseases have been attributed to behavior risks, including injection drug use.

There are now more than 600 confirmed cases of people living with HIV on the Cape, with an average of 25 new cases being diagnosed each year.

Barnstable County has the highest incidence rate of reported confirmed chronic Hepatitis C infections in the state, at 344 per 100,000 youth between the ages of 15 and 25. More than half of new diagnoses in this age group are females.

Nearly 3,000 Barnstable County residents have been reported as living with Hepatitis C infection since 2002, when the state began collecting data.

“There has been a rise in Hepatitis C diagnoses across the Commonwealth of Massachusetts but Cape Cod is definitely a hot spot,” said Kevin Cranston, director of the Bureau of Infectious Disease at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

New Hepatitis C infections are occurring mostly among intravenous drug users, particularly young injectors, Cranston said. Diagnoses in the baby boomer population are among those who likely contracted the disease earlier in life when they engaged in risky behaviors.

The Clinical Services team provides services to patients across Cape Cod in a supportive and caring environment, which helps to detect and report new infectious disease cases, Cranston said. “This is very important but we’re really only scratching the surface.”

Needle exchange is one part of a comprehensive program to combat those diseases, along with education about syringes and vein care, information about avoiding overdose, and testing for sexually transmitted diseases, Cranston said.

But unlike HIV, Hepatitis C doesn’t have federal or state resources behind it to help decrease transmission rates or provide unfettered access to treatment, he added.

This makes community outreach, prevention and education services for patients even more important.

“These services are invaluable for protecting public health,” said Valerie Al-Hachem, RN, manager and grants administrator at Clinical Services. “These programs help link patients to services and engage in a care system to help treat their disease and lower the risk of transmitting it.”

“[We] offer patient care in one place and coordinates care from primary care to specialty and acute care, “ said Diane Marino, RN, director of the agency. “This means a great deal to our community.”