Needle exchange programs getting underway in TN after recent legislative authorization bills

Health officials say a new needle exchange program in Johnson City will be only the second of its kind in Tennessee and will help limit infections spread by the increasing rate of intravenous drug use in the area, according to the Johnson City Press.

The report comes after the legislature has, without much media attention, moved to authorize more needle exchange programs statewide. The 110th General Assembly approved two bills on the subject – one in 2017 that allows private and nonprofit organizations to run needle exchange programs subject to Department of Health approval, and another this year that lets all local governments do the same, again subject to DOH approval.

The Times Free Press reported last month that a needle exchange program has been set up in Chattanooga. A website on such programs indicates there are also existing program in Nashville and Memphis, though a quick Google search shows no announcement of them opening.

From the Johnson City Press article:

On Wednesday, East Tennessee State University announced that its Center of Excellence for Inflammation, Infectious Disease and Immunity will provide new, unused needles and naloxone to people who inject drugs through participation in the new Syringe Trade and Education Program of Tennessee.

The free syringe exchange program will be housed at the ETSU Quillen infectious diseases clinic, 615 N. State of Franklin Road. 

“Research indicates public funding of syringe service programs such as STEP TN is associated with lower rates of HIV and greater numbers of health and social services provided,” said Angela Hagaman, director of operations at the ETSU Center for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment. “Many studies (also) show that syringe exchange programs decrease drug use by connecting people to treatment.”

 … Of the 2.7 to 3.9 million people in the nation who have chronic hepatitis C, the most common means of transmission is injecting drugs.

In Tennessee, reported rates of hepatitis C increased 100 percent from 2010 to 2016, and in 2016, HIV diagnoses among adults and adolescents were 12.8 per 100,000.

As far as new HIV diagnosis rates go, Tennessee ranks 16th in the nation in the most recent rankings.

…Hagaman and other ETSU researchers found that many Tennesseans are largely unaware of how the lack of syringe exchange programs play into the risk of a potential HIV/hepatitis outbreak, but are generally supportive of prevention strategies such as syringe exchange programs.

While 74 percent of Tennesseans surveyed by researchers said they agreed with harm reduction measures such as syringe exchange programs, Hagaman said the issue remains largely controversial, due to the stigmas associated with drug abuse.

“We don’t treat it the same way we treat other chronic diseases,” she said. “There’s still this myth that it will make people use more drugs, that there will be more needles on the street and that you’re encouraging a bad moral decision.

“A lot of people don’t necessarily understand the science behind harm reduction yet. We want to understand people’s concerns and help them understand the science.”

Note: The 2017 bill approved by the General Assembly (SB806) was sponsored by Sen. Steve Dickerson (R-Nashville) and Rep. Patsy Hazelwood (R-Signal Mountain); approved 71-17 in the House and 29-1 in the Senate. The 2018 bill (SB2359) was sponsored by Sen. Jeff Yarbro (D-Nashville) and House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh (D-Ripley); approved  29-1 by the Senate and 81-13 by the House. All no votes came from Republicans. In the Senate, the single no vote on both bills came from Sen. Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald). The 2018 bill was signed into law by Gov. Bill Haslam on Tuesday, a day before the Johnson City announcement.

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