A year after the start of Allen County's syringe-exchange program, the statistics have been impressive enough to win over some of the skeptics.
The Health Department proposed the program in the fall of 2015, after it became clear that intravenous drug users were spreading HIV and hepatitis C by sharing used needles. “We knew that the studies show these types of services do limit transmissions,” said Mindy Waldron, the health department's administrator. Though a similar program was already helping curb an HIV epidemic in Scott County, Indiana, the Allen County proposal had to overcome the doubts of some local officials and thread a long bureaucratic process before the exchange opened on Nov. 1, 2016.
The weekly program has had 692 new and returning clients and is seeing as many as 15 new addicts per week. Return clients are bringing in as many used needles as they're taking out.
“We anticipated it would start slowly, as it did,” said Jeffrey Markley, executive director of Positive Resource Connection, which provides space from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. every Tuesday at 519 Oxford St. for the clinic. Word had to get out, he explained, and trust had to be built. But those involved in the effort have no doubt there are more people who could be reached.
“This is probably just the tip of the iceberg,” Markley, a member of the syringe-exchange's advisory committee, said in an interview Thursday.
“It's really not just a syringe exchange,” said Markley, whose organization has been helping those with HIV and hepatitis C since 1985. “We have people there every week from mental health facilities and from addiction facilities. We can walk them 10 feet to an addiction counselor and they take it from there.” Clinic visitors also have the option of being tested for HIV and hepatitis C or receiving care for needle-related wound infections.
This fall, the commissioners voted unanimously to extend the program for another two years, Fort Wayne-Allen County Department of Health officials, having received a state grant to cover operations and staffing, are contemplating expanded hours and days for the clinic next year.
HIV and hepatitis C infections are still going up, Health Commissioner Deborah McMahan said Thursday, “but not as fast as overdoses. In the middle of an epidemic, I figure we can at least slow the curve.”
Even slowing the curve can ease the strain on public health services and budgets.
“It's really amazing how expensive some of these diseases are to treat,” McMahan said. “One case of hepatitis C costs $80,000 to treat. HIV requires a lifetime treatment of $380,000 to $500,000.”
For the first year, the cost of the syringe-exchange program was about $40,000, most it paid for through grants, Waldron said.
“You can do the math,” McMahan said. “If you prevent one case, you're really ahead.”
Getting people tested and treated may have prevented others from contracting infectious disease, and those who connected with an addiction counselor at the service are a step closer to beating the habit – and perhaps a step further away from a potentially fatal overdose.
The county may not need a syringe-exchange program forever. For now, though, it's vital.