Following lead of others, New London syringe exchange opens

New London — More than 25 years after the first syringe exchange program began operating in Connecticut, one has now opened in New London County.

Operating out of the Alliance for Living’s Broad Street facility, the program on Friday afternoons provides clean needles to people who inject drugs, as well as offering access to related treatment and services.

According to President and CEO Kelly Thompson, it has been a long time coming.

Connecticut’s first syringe exchange program opened in New Haven in 1990 and quickly reduced the number of new HIV infections in the city. Since then, a large body of research has shown the programs bring dramatic drops in new cases of HIV and no increase in crime or drug use.

A strong believer in evidence-based practices, Thompson wanted to bring such a program to this city when she came on board at Alliance for Living in 2011. After she implemented some other visions she had for the nonprofit, which provides services to people affected by HIV and AIDS, she took steps to create the exchange program. She said it launched about six months ago.

“People are going to be using and injecting drugs,” Thompson said. “We’re offering them an opportunity to do that safely and reduce the spread of HIV.”

Robert Heimer, a Yale University professor who directs the Emerging Infections Program, is well versed in the topic, which is a core focus of his research. He rattles off numbers as if he has committed them to memory.

When the New Haven program started, he said, 70 percent of HIV cases in the city were attributable to drug use. Today that number is less than 10 percent.

Around 1990, each year could bring as many as 80 new HIV diagnoses among drug users in New Haven alone. Last year, 16 new cases of HIV were diagnosed in the entire state.

Similar results extend down to New York City and well beyond, saving lives and money along the way. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it costs more than $400,000 to treat just one person living with HIV across his or her lifetime.

Heimer said providing access to clean needles is important because many drug users don’t get diagnosed and begin treatment for HIV until years after they’ve been infected. Dozens of others are at risk in the meantime.

Once an outbreak begins, it can spread like wildfire. Heimer pointed to Scott County, Ind., as evidence of that. In the rural southeastern part of that state in 2015, a network of people shared needles while injecting Opana, an opioid pain reliever. Almost 200 of them ended up HIV-positive.

“It seems like the possibility for outbreaks of HIV and hepatitis C is concentrated in places where prevention services are inadequate,” Heimer said, “and New London County is one of them.”

Heimer came to the city last year to discuss with the mayor, police and fire officials and other health-related employees the impact syringe exchange programs typically have. Other sanctioned ones operating in Connecticut are in Bridgeport, Hartford, Danbury and Willimantic.

Both Heimer and Thompson said city officials were receptive to the idea.

To get clean needles from the state, Alliance for Living reports data on how many people it serves and their demographics, to the extent people are willing to share the latter. People who show up to use the free service are asked to answer a few questions. Then, they're issued a unique identifier they can use in place of their names to maintain confidentiality.

Participants then drop their used needles into a sharps box — a hard plastic container used to safely dispose of used needles — and receive the same number of clean ones in return. Staffers also have other safe injection supplies, such as gauze, on hand.

Thompson said visitors also are offered overdose-reversing naloxone kits and taught how to use them. Staffers additionally link clients to relevant area services and sometimes discuss other risky behaviors drug users may engage in.

Right now, the program operates out of the rear of the building at 154 Broad St. from noon to 3 p.m. on Fridays. Those wishing to participate can use a private door to access the facility rather than walking through the main entrance.

Despite her agency’s efforts, Thompson knows a fixed location isn’t ideal. Some people, fearful of being “outed” as a drug user, may avoid such a place. Others may not have the desire or the means to travel from area towns to the city.

Currently, the program is funded through grants totaling about $19,000 from The Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut and the Ledge Light Health District.

Thompson, however, said she will need about $100,000 to fully staff the program, purchase a van and launch a mobile program that would visit people at their homes.

According to the CDC, the use of a syringe exchange program makes people who inject drugs five times more likely to enter treatment for substance use disorder than those who don't use such programs. Participants also are more likely to reduce or stop injecting, the CDC reports.

Getting drug users into treatment is key, Heimer said — especially with opioid addiction. Opioid use chronically alters the way the brain functions. Trying to treat it without using a medication such as methadone, he said, can be as futile for some people as trying to lower cholesterol solely through diet and exercise.

“What medication-based treatment does is it makes people feel normal so they can resume normal activities,” Heimer said.

Thompson, expressing a similar sentiment, said the exchange allows the city to reach people it normally wouldn’t.

“We can’t make people want treatment,” Thompson said. “But we can create an environment where, if they are ready to do that, they know where to come.”

l.boyle@theday.com

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