Thursday, June 10, 2021

Public-health experts warn against conservatives' efforts to get local officials to shutter syringe-exchange programs

A large crowd watched commissioners in Scott County, Indiana, vote last week to end their rural county's syringe exchange by the end of the year, despite objections from public-health experts. (Photo from Louisville Courier Journal)

"Recent efforts to shutter needle exchanges in Republican-led areas could indicate renewed GOP backlash to the controversial programs aimed at preventing outbreaks of HIV and hepatitis, public health experts are increasingly warning," Dan Goldberg reports for Politico. "The pushback against needle exchanges, which allow people using drugs to receive clean syringes without fear of arrest, is happening at a perilous moment for the nation’s long-running drug epidemic. Overdose deaths over the past year have climbed to record levels, exacerbated by a pandemic that has pushed the drug crisis from the headlines. HIV outbreaks spurred by use of injectable drugs are also plaguing major American cities, and rates of hepatitis, which often spreads through injection drug use, were climbing before the Covid-19 pandemic."

Many Republican lawmakers say such "harm reduction programs" encourage addiction, but years of studies show they reduce infectious disease transmission rates and do not promote drug use. "Their opposition softened in the last decade as the opioid epidemic devastated communities and Trump pledged to defeat the crisis," Goldberg reports. "But public-health experts fear the country is witnessing the start of a broader Republican rebellion against these programs — one that’s partly fueled by anti-science backlash to Covid restrictions."

In Southern Indiana, Scott County commissioners voted 2-1 this month to close a syringe exchange that quelled an internationally recognized rural HIV outbreak in 2016. Commissioner Mike Jones said, “I know people who are alcoholics, and I don’t buy them a bottle of whiskey. And I know people who want to kill themselves, and I don't buy them a bullet for their gun.”

"Commissioners rejected pleas of local law enforcement, state officials and former Trump administration Surgeon General Jerome Adams in voting to shutter the exchange," reports Chris Kenning of the Louisville Courier Journal. "The move comes amid a nationwide increase in drug overdoses attributed to the pandemic, leading supporters to argue there could scarcely be a worse time to abandon the harm-reduction program serving a one-time epicenter of the U.S. opioid crisis."

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