El Paso County Considers Needle Exchange Program: The Opioid Epidemic Reaches Colorado Springs

El Paso County is joining statewide considerations for needle exchange initiatives to prevent the spread of blood-borne diseases. Currently, eight needle exchange facilities in Colorado provide sterile syringes for intravenous drug users. The following organizations, along with others, created these initiatives: The Denver Colorado AIDS Project, the Harm Reduction Action Center, and Access Point Pueblo.

On Dec. 4, the El Paso County Board of Health discussed the Syringe Access Program with the Colorado Health Network (CHN). According to their mission statement, CHN is an organization “serving nearly 4,000 individuals in Colorado who are living with HIV/AIDS, and those at risk.” CHN supports the establishment and continuation of needle exchange programs because “the mission of CHN is to equitably meet the evolving needs of people affected by HIV and other health conditions through prevention, care and advocacy.” That includes meeting with the Board of Health to further discussion of and support for a needle exchange program in El Paso County.

On campus, less than 1 percent of students use opioids at least twice per month. According to Chris Walters, a Health Educator in the Wellness Resource Center, the college acts as a protective factor for opioid use. The Counseling Center in Boettcher serves as a preventative and treatment resource for students with the Wellness Resource Center providing social norming and programming for more pervasive substances such as alcohol.

Yet despite low presence of opioid use on campus, Colorado Springs has seen an increase in Hepatitis C cases and overdoses. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), between 2011 and 2015 the reported rates of acute Hepatitis C increased by 40 percent.

The Colorado Consortium on Prescription Drug Abuse measured an increase in opioid abuse through overdose rates and found southern Colorado having higher rates of opioid use than the northern half of the state. Most other Front Range communities have a needle exchange to prevent the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C, but the Colorado Springs Board of Health voted down a proposal in 2013. The current consideration should be voted on in February 2018.

The needle exchange would ideally lead to rehabilitation for users. In an article written by Bryan Grossman in the Colorado Springs Business Journal, Mary Steiner, a community program manager with Community Health Partnership, explained the need for and goals of a needle exchange program in Colorado Springs.

“It’s getting worse,” Steiner said. “We’re not as bad as Ohio and states back East, who have some 4,000 overdose deaths a year. We’re not there, but one thing we emphasize is the importance of mitigating, so we don’t get to that point.”

Community members point to the addictiveness of opioids that many addicts begin taking as a prescription painkiller. A needle exchange is a beginning step for reducing opioid use in El Paso County. “There’s a bigger picture,” Steiner said. “It’s part of harm reduction, but it’s not just a one-for-one [needle] exchange. There’s also a counseling component with the hope that, at some point, they’ll be ready to go into treatment.”

Across the U.S., needle exchange initiatives are providing opiate addicts measures for protection against blood-borne diseases. Users bring used needles to the centers, drop them into a disposal unit, and receive clean needles and preparation supplies. This initiative has two-fold community impacts: it ensures the safe disposal of used needles and prevents the reuse or sharing of needles which spread diseases such as Hepatitis C and HIV/AIDS. According to the CDC, syringe service programs are an effective contribution to HIV prevention.

For his part in the Wellness Resource Center, Walters plans to host programming focused on opioid use in the U.S. He hopes to host a speaker who can speak to the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s and the social and political war on drugs and compare that with the narrative of addiction and help surrounding heroin and opioid use.

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