Las Vegas just adopted a radical new approach in its battle against rising HIV rates. The city is the first in the nation to utilize vending machines to dispense packets of clean needles to drug users.
“Providing clean needles and supplies is a proven method for limiting disease transmission in a community,” said Dr. Joe Iser, Chief Health Officer of the Southern Nevada Health District.
The brightly-colored machines are the result of a collaboration between the Southern Nevada Health District, the Nevada AIDS Research and Education Society and Trac-B Exchange. Users will be able to anonymously sign up for a swipe card and identification number that will allow them two free boxes a week. Each box dispensed by the machines contains clean needles as well as a bag to discard used ones.
“People are already engaging in these behaviors, and anytime someone’s engaging in a behavior that could cause them some potential health side effects, we want to encourage them to reduce their risk of harm,” said Chelsi Cheatom, program manager for Trac-B Exchange, in an interview with KSNV.
“Having access to clean syringes is a harm-reduction approach that’s going to allow people to protect themselves against getting communicable diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C.”
The new machines will be installed in three separate locations by the end of next month. Materials were provided by Trac-B Exchange.
Patrick Bozarth, executive director of the Community Counseling Center, believes that the machines are critical to the valley’s health. He said that they will be housed discreetly in a private office at the facility, and help will be available to those who request it.
“This is like our heart and soul. Seeing this happen is actually like a dream come true,” said Michele Jorge, HIV lab director at the center.
Needle exchanges are controversial because some believe that they serve to encourage drug use. However, the evidence does not seem to bear that out. Healthy people don’t stay sober because they lack access to needles. Someone who’s actively seeking a fresh needle supply is someone who’s already in the grip of a deadly addiction. The machines might save someone who otherwise would have infected themselves or someone else with HIV, but they’re unlikely to promote fresh drug use.
“It’s a philosophy of service at the front end, and adjusting the way we look at drug users,” said Liz Evans, the Executive Director at New York Harm Reduction Educators. “Too often we fail to see drug users as human beings, and they become defined by that and get called all these names like junkies and addicts. It becomes harder as a society to respond to them with kindness.”
Experts believe that there are at least 5,800 intravenous drug users in Clark County, where Las Vegas is located. About one in ten of the new HIV diagnoses in the area are traced to infected needles. Curbing the transmission of disease by promoting clean needle use may feel uncomfortably like tacitly approving drug abuse, but that doesn’t negate the massive benefits.
“The debate over whether syringe exchanges are beneficial has long been settled,” said Daniel Raymond, Deputy Director of Planning and Policy at the Harm Reduction Coalition. “The issue now is more, what method is appropriate for my community?”
Las Vegas is a particularly alluring town for drug addicts. The city playfully promotes its wild image, urging revelers to descend into the Vegas nightlife scene. The seedy underbelly of casinos is never advertised. Lives are ruined as people spiral into addiction. Despite Nevada’s minuscule population, Las Vegas is perhaps the best place in the country to test innovative methods of helping drug users.
HIV rates across the country are set to skyrocket. A record number of Americans are now victim to opioid addiction. These people need help. Obviously, access to clean needles isn’t going to fix their problems, but it may help to keep them relatively healthy until they can get clean.
“That year, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health analyzed chronic hepatitis C infection data and observed an increase of HCV among persons aged 15–24 between 2002 and 2009. The young people being reported were…primarily White, and equally male and female. In-depth interviews with a number of these HCV-positive young people uncovered that most…started opioid use by first misusing oral oxycodone around 1–1.5 years before transitioning to injecting heroin,” reads a grim government report.
After the troubling Massachusetts findings were published, other jurisdictions began to report similar findings. Hepatitis C and HIV rates among young people are steadily rising. Intravenous drug use is largely responsible. A young man or woman struggling with addiction might be cured; if that same person is infected with HIV however, he or she has to bear that burden for the rest of their lives.