Access to sterile single use syringes is imperative, and the health of IV drug users depends on it. While maintaining a healthy sober lifestyle is obviously the best way to avoid any health risks and negative consequences associated with IV drug use, I can tell you from personal experience that this isn't such a simple task for those battling addiction.
That’s where needle exchange programs come into play. They provide addicts with access to sterile single-use syringes and focus on harm reduction. These programs also offer an amazingly wide range of services and give out tourniquets, vials of sterile water for injection, sterile single-use cookers, filters, vitamin C powder, snort kits, crack pipes, condoms, as well as informational booklets on safe injection practices and safe sex.
Needle Exchanges are also a vital point of access to community resources, such as communicable disease testing and monitoring, various different healthcare services, treatment options, detox programs, rehabilitation centers, methadone and suboxone programs, etc.
This point of contact is so important because many addicts feel highly stigmatized trying to access care through the traditional routes and methods. These exchange programs are different; they welcome in a highly stigmatized group that would otherwise go uncared for, untreated and unchecked. They offer them care without judgment.
I vividly remember the first time I ever stepped foot into a needle exchange. It took me a long time to work up the courage to even be seen in the building, let alone fess up to being an IV drug user and go grab some clean needles. But, it's a decision I'll never regret, and it's one that helped save my life.
For the first time as an IV drug user, I was treated with respect, dignity and honesty. I was told about the risks, how to use safely, given treatment options I never even knew I had, and the most amazing part was that I was never once pressured or made to feel badly.
If you’re not ready for treatment, that's OK. They understood that an addict who isn't ready for a life of sobriety is going to use regardless; at least this way they can be safe and healthy during the interim. This not only helps the addict, but it also minimizes the unnecessary strain put on the healthcare system in treating IV drug use related problems and diseases that could easily be avoided through education and safer injection practices.
I made it out without contracting any illnesses or diseases, other than the scars of track marks up my arms and another scar to remind me of the abscess on my chest. Many other users also manage to inject safely and avoid any long term negative health consequences. But, the frightening possibility of contracting an illness simply serves as a reminder as to why you should never share a syringe with anyone, regardless of how healthy or clean they claim to be.
You shouldn't even be reusing your own needles, let alone ever sharing or reusing someone else's.
Whether the needle exchange is closed, it’s outside pharmacy business hours, or for whatever reason clean syringes aren't accessible; almost every IV drug user has encountered the situation where they are forced to make a very risky decision when it comes to their health.
Reuse an old syringe, or wait to do the hit? Unfortunately, many will make the dangerous choice to reuse, and sadly there is certainly no shortage of articles and instructions online that recommend effective and safe methods to reuse syringes. Using a syringe on multiple occasions is a much more common occurrence among IV drug users than you might think. A much as we'd like to be able to use a fresh clean needle every time, that's not always feasible.
I won't lie -- when I was still using, I did it many times when my supply of clean syringes ran short. I've seen it happen among other users on so many occasions I've lost count. I’ve even been asked to participate in the sharing of a syringe, and even unfortunately witnessed addicts fishing out used, dirty syringes from needle disposal bins late in the night.
Yet again, when accessing a free, clean syringe isn't an easy task, the health and safety of IV drug users is put at grave risk.
Enter the right search terms into Google, and you'll find an abundant supply of articles and how-to's. Ranging from various methods of sterilizing a needle yourself, instructions for bleaching syringes and how to sharpen an old, dull syringe; websites and articles touting instructions can be highly misinformed.
It is never, ever a good idea to reuse a syringe, regardless of whether you've cleaned or sharpened it. If you perform these procedures wrong in even the slightest way, you can end up with some disastrous effects.
What exactly are the risks? Let's take a look.
When viewed under a microscope, the damage to a syringe after each successive injection is undeniable. After just one single use, the tip of a syringe can go from precise and sharp, to a mess of blunt, bent metal and a ruined beveled tip.
It’s not exactly something you'd want to stick in your veins, yet many addicts do. It can cause plenty of damage in the short term as well as the long, with problems ranging from collapsed veins, reduced circulation, blood clots, embolisms, infections, as well as causing scarring and permanent damage to tissues.
If the decision is made to attempt sharpening the needle, you are also taking the risk of shaved off shards of metal possibly getting lodged inside the needle or plastic barrel, and you run the risk of it entering the body. As you might imagine, this is a highly undesirable and unsafe scenario.
Another problem that comes along with the reuse of syringes is the risk of contracting any number of different infections and diseases. A very preventable, but highly common problem amongst IV drug users is abscesses. I'll warn you now, that's probably not something you want to type into Google unless you're prepared for some graphic images.
Caused by bacteria forced into the body through a syringe, abscesses are painful, puss filled masses that most commonly occur over the injection site on the skin. Luckily, abscesses are treatable, although it's not exactly a comfortable process to have it lanced and drained in the ER and then packed daily by a nurse for weeks. Trust me, I know.
Unfortunately, many IV drug users end up with other problems that are not so easily treatable. Diseases such as Hepatitis C and HIV are serious diseases that can be contracted through the reuse and sharing of syringes and will follow the user for life.
The possibility of disease is something that needs to be taken seriously. I cannot stress that enough. On many occasions I have heard users who are in fact positive for communicable diseases refer to themselves as 'clean' because, according to them, their diseases are “just so common.”
I am by no means trying to stigmatize all IV drug users as “dirty,” because that is absolutely not the case. It is simply a reminder of the very real possibility of disease that comes with IV drug use and the risky behavior or needle sharing.
There is hope breaking on the horizon, though, and some interesting syringe designs are being produced with the aim of helping to reduce the incidence of syringe reuse. While this is certainly not new technology, there are now various different models and designs available to help to ensure a syringe will in fact be single use only.
How exactly is this accomplished? While different models employ different methods, generally an auto-destruct syringe provides an effective way of ensuring that a needle is in fact only used once by ceasing to function after the first injection. Some versions will cause the plunger to lock up after one use, others causing the plunger to snap off altogether, or have removable plastic tabs to indicate the syringe has been used before.
By implementing these new auto-destruct syringes into the current model of harm reduction, as well as further educating IV drug users of the dangers associated with syringe reuse through needle exchange programs, the rate of occurrence, as well as the risks of infection and disease could be drastically reduced.
Not only that, but offering IV drug users a nonjudgmental and safe place to seek supplies and care could increase the chances that they will find their path to sobriety and a healthy productive life.
K. Lanktree is a NewsOK contributor, Freelance Writer, Former IV Drug User, Methadone Patient and Harm Reduction Advocate. For more information, check out her blog.
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