Allen Co. Health Department ramping up services at needle exchange program

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – Allen County Health officials said it’s been a slow start to the syringe services program. The program allows people to exchange dirty needles for new ones. However, the slow start has allowed them to ramp up the program in other areas.

Now, the Indiana General Assembly is considering a bill that would make it easier for other counties to get similar programs.

About 30 people have visited the syringe services program at 519 Oxford St. in Fort Wayne. They aren’t just getting clean needles. Several have been treated for skin infections and some have even gotten help with their addiction.

“Our goal is to reduce transmission of an infectious disease, and you don’t want that infectious disease,” Allen County Health Commissioner Dr. Deborah McMahan said.

At the end of last year, a public health emergency was declared in Allen County allowing the Health Department to open the program. The goal is for drug users, those most susceptible to diseases spread through used needles like Hepatitis C, to exchange their used needles for new ones.

McMahan said it’s been a slow start to the program partly because people who would use this program may not trust it.

“There’s a lot of stigma with substance use disorder and addiction so I think there are a lot of people who are afraid they might be seen,” McMahan said.

McMahan isn’t surprised by the start, and said it’s given them time to ramp up their services including adding a nurse who can give an optional, free medical exam. McMahan said the nurse has sent people to the ER with severe skin infections, but is also able to give antibiotics on site. A substance abuse and mental health counselor has also been added into the mix. About 10 percent of the visitors have used this service.

“One person has been sent on to treatment for addiction,” McMahan said.

Indiana lawmakers are seeing the benefits of these programs. Right now nine counties have needle exchange programs. The House of Representatives approved a bill giving counties and cities the power to create a program without getting approval from the state health commissioner.

However, Attorney General Curtis Hill said he opposes this bill. In a statement he wrote:

“The current needle exchange program may be well intended, but it has evolved into a needle give-away, ultimately contributing to more syringes being passed around and shared in our communities. House Bill 1438 will simply allow more communities to pass out needles, and do so without justifiable cause. This bill is a detriment to our efforts to get victims of drug abuse the treatment they need, as it will only serve to further trap them in the vicious cycle of opioid addiction. We need to help our fellow Hoosiers who are caught in that cycle, but we need to do so in a way that is conducive to placing them in rehabilitation facilities where they can get the treatment they need in order to overcome the greatest battle of their lives.”

The Health Department has recently added a page to their website about the syringe services program. You can visit that here.