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How effective are needle exchange programs?

Used syringes are discarded at a needle exchange clinic.
Used syringes are discarded at a needle exchange clinic.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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Santa Ana has shut down the only needle exchange program serving Orange County. The city denied the program permits to continue operating because of complaints about an increase in discarded needles around the city's Civic Center. The non-profit that runs the program says it's now trying to get back up and running.

Ricky Bluthenthal is a professor of preventative medicine at the University of Southern California who has researched needle exchanges. He said he understands these programs are controversial, but, generally speaking, they have been shown to reduce needle or syringe litter. 

"If you have a syringe litter problem, you need more needle exchanges not less, because they give people an incentive to safely dispose of their syringes," Bluthenthal said.

What needle exchange programs offer

Needle or syringe exchanges allow people to get clean needles in return for used ones, which can reduce the spread of diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C by reducing needle sharing, Bluthenthal said. 

The programs typically offer a range of services, according to Bluthenthal. In addition to exchanging syringes, people can get referrals to drug treatment, housing programs and other social services. Bluthenthal said that his studies have shown one of the benefits of needle exchanges is connecting people to preventive care and other services. 

Are they effective?

Studies have shown needle exchanges can lead to declines in needle sharing and fewer incidents of HIV Bluthenthal said. "The scientific literature is unambiguous," he said. 

Bluthenthal pointed to San Fransisco as an example of a city with a particularly successful syringe exchange because there were programs across the city open at all hours throughout the week. Research comparing San Fransisco to Miami, a similar-sized city without a needle exchange, showed San Fransisco had far less needle litter and syringe sharing, which can spread disease.

Why needle exchanges are necessary

There has been an increase in people using injected drugs both nationally and in California, Bluthenthal said. The increase is a downstream consequence of the opioid crisis, making needle exchanges all the more necessary.

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