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The importance of sterile single-use syringes for intravenous drug users

A look at the importance of sterile single-use syringes for harm reduction, as well as the problems and health risks associated with the growing issue of syringe reuse among intravenous drug users.
by K. Lanktree Modified: April 28, 2014 at 11:25 am •  Published: April 28, 2014

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.

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by K. Lanktree
NewsOK Contributor
K. Lanktree is a Freelance Writer, Former IV Drug User, Methadone Patient & Harm Reduction Advocate. She is dedicated to reducing the stigma and discrimination of Addiction and IV Drug Users through education, writing and poetry.
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