Needle exchange program arrives at Thayer

Colby Echo (Ali Naseer)

MaineGeneral’s harm reduction program has now expanded to the Thayer Center for Health, located at 149 North St., Waterville.

As part of an ongoing campaign to combat the national opioid crisis which continues to acutely afflict Maine, the MaineGeneral Center for Prevention and Healthy Living provides various services, including educational resources and presentations, testing for communicable diseases among needle-drug users, and needle exchange programs, according to a recent press release on the Center’s website.

The Center’s educational programming includes HECK (Health, Education, Crime, and Kids), which discusses the impact of opioid use on an individual and their surrounding community. Other programming includes “What You Need to Know About Naloxone,” a training seminar informing participants how to use the intranasal drug available from many pharmacies, which can be life-saving in case of overdose. Finally, the Center offers preventative educational presentations regarding “Sex and Drugs Jeopardy,” which interactively presents the details of addiction, medication assisted treatment through drugs like Suboxone, and what an opioid overdose entials. This programming also informs participants on infections to which the growing population of needle-drug users are uniquely vulnerable, such as HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis A, B, and C.

The MaineGeneral health system’s other programs include safe sex supplies such as condoms, as well as free HIV and Hepatitis C testing for users of needle drugs. These 30 minute, anonymous tests have proven to be effective harm reduction tools in communities where they have been implemented, such as at the center’s first location in Augusta. Since this first office’s inception in 2004, both testing and needle exchange services have been offered only at this location. However, now the center has expanded needle exchange offerings to its new Waterville location.

The Next Step Needle Exchange Program, now available in Augusta and Waterville, is an anonymous exchange of needles for those over 18 years of age. Working on a ‘point for point’ exchange, the center provides one unused needle, up to 100 per person per session, for each needle brought in by an exchange member. Supplementary injection supplies such as alcohol pads and triple antibiotic ointment are also supplied.

This program is part of the Maine CDC’s broader movement aiming for harm reduction amongst intravenous (IV) drug users. Underscoring the necessity of such programs, the Maine CDC Statewide Coordinated Statement of Need and Integrated HIV Prevention and Care Plan for 2017–2021 reports on its website that the six certified needle exchange sites in Maine collected 545,475 contaminated needles from 4,264 individuals at 17,155 exchange events from Nov. 2014 through Oct. 2015. Despite these tangible impacts on Maine communities, the integrated care plan laid out by the Maine CDC states that 25 percent of IV drug users continue to report sharing needles.

While the primary goal of this needle exchange program is to decrease the prevalence of HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis amongst more highly vulnerable IV drug users, these programs can also have supplementary beneficial effects to the community. In an interview with the Echo, Matt Prior, senior communications manager at the National Coalition of STD Directors (NCSD), stated that needle exchange programs can help to decrease risky actions on the part of IV drug users which would put them at increased risk of contracting STDs such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis. According to qualitative data collected by the Maine CDC, 38 percent of respondents to a survey of IV drug users reported that they had traded sex for drugs, money, or shelter at some point, while another 38% stated that they had been under the influence of alcohol or drugs during most or all of their sexual encounters in the last year. Crucially, all of those surveyed reported that they shared injection equipment “at least sometimes,” while only 15% reported utilizing community STD testing in the past year, and less than half of respondents had a primary care physician. These are all issues which increase the likelihood that an IV drug user will suffer from an STD. Nationally, the NCSD has “never seen so many cases” of certain STDs, Prior said.

The recent expansion of the needle exchange program by MaineGeneral represents the close partnership of this health system and the Maine CDC Division of Infectious Disease, which receives funding from various Alfond-sponsored charities. However, the Maine CDC’s analysis also reveals key challenges which may continue to hamper the MaineGeneral program. For example, language barriers, a history of trauma, cultural norms which impose increased sex, drug, and HIV related stigma, a perception that condoms transmit HIV, and the issue of ashamed IV drug users not wanting to ask for help were all found to prevent individuals from utilizing needle exchange programs.

However, the MaineGeneral Center for Prevention and Healthy Living “is having an impact overall,” as James Markiewicz of the Maine CDC Division of Infectious Disease told the Portland Press Herald. As part of the broader CDC strategy regarding harm reduction amongst IV drug users, the MaineGeneral needle exchange program serves as a key component in fulfilling the goal of outreach and education where injection drug use and HIV are prevalent.

Some issues targeted by the needle exchange program reach campus. Sexually transmitted diseases are especially prevalent amongst today’s college students, and although there is no available data on Colby specifically, our small school is most likely not an exception to this trend. The Health Center offers one free Chlamydia, Gonnorhea, and/or HIV test a year to each Colby student, so if you suspect yourself or a loved one may have recently been exposed, there is no harm in simply taking advantage of Colby’s services. Garrison-Foster is open for appointments weekdays from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m.