Free needle exchange resumes in Madison County

ANDERSON, Ind. – After going a year without a program to help reduce the spread of diseases through the sharing of needles, the program is back underway in Madison County.

In August of 2017, county leaders voted to stop funding a syringe exchange program that helps drug users get clean needles to protect them and others from the spread of diseases, such as hepatitis C and HIV.

Earlier this year, the county decided to allow the non-profit Aspire to take over the program.

Leaders at the healthcare provider said it needed the last few months to tell stakeholders their plan and get the program back up and running, which happened in mid to late August with the first needles going out to residents.

"We’re seeing about three to five people a week who are getting needles and exchanging needles," said Aspire's chief operating officer, Syd Ehmke. "Right now, we’re seeing a lot more needles coming into us than what we gave out, because people had needles and they bring them to us, so we can discard them."

Ehmke said the office has seen about 13 people multiple times so far and expects the number of visitors to grow as more people learn that program has resumed, and people get more comfortable asking for free syringes.

While the program was shut down for a part of 2017 and 2018, Hepatitis C cases grew in the community last year.

The Madison County Health Department reported that it saw 10 new cases of the virus last year, which was the second highest number in Indiana.

The health department added that it expects those numbers and the number of HIV cases to rise when that data is released for 2018 in the early part of next year.

Each could be due to the lack of a free needle exchange for 12 months.

Aspire offers free screenings for both HIV and Hepatitis C to anyone who wants one while exchanging needles. Some of the 13 people have already taken up the offer.

"Three of those were tested for HIV," said Ehmke. "Three were tested for Hepatitis C and one was positive for Hepatitis C."

Needles can be exchanged on Mondays at 2009 Brown Street in Anderson from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and on Wednesdays from 2 to 5 p.m.

At least one recovery program in the community is pleased to see the program back.

"It’s a necessity in the community," said House of Hope Director Shawn Gibson. "In this past year, I’ve seen a definite rise in heroin addiction."

The House of Hope has helped men beat addiction since 1986. Gibson said people fighting to overcome their addiction to drugs may not be ready to quit but getting them help to reduce the risk of disease can be a start to getting help.

"It's getting them in the door with the free needle exchange," Gibson said. "Once they’re there we can say let's get you tested, let's get you help."

Ehmke said beating addiction is like trying to quit smoking and it may take someone several tries to finally win their battle.

"We hope that one day, when they’re ready, they’ll be able to say okay hook me up," Ehmke said.