CADILLAC — Giving addicts clean needles could save their lives and the lives of other people.
But Wexford County doesn’t have a needle exchange program.
That could change.
On Thursday evening, Dr. Jennifer Morse, who is the medical director of District Health Department No. 10 and Pamel Lynch, who is a social worker and the director of Harm Reduction Michigan, presented data on the opioid epidemic and needle exchange programs.
It was the first of a series of meetings the health department hopes to host in Wexford County with the idea of bringing a syringe services program (sometimes called a needle exchange program) to the county.
Harm Reduction Michigan contacted the health department about the possibility of bringing a syringe program to the community, said Kevin Hughes, health officer of District Health Department No. 10.
“I’ve been wanting to get a sense from the community what people, what providers, thought,‘ said Lynch, who is the director of Harm Reduction Michigan, a program that provides harm reduction services, such as naloxone and needles, to people who use drugs. The organization also offers training and consultation on harm reduction.
Logistically, many things would need to be in place and many conversations would need to be had before any program could start, Hughes said.
“We wanted to kind of start having that conversation,‘ Hughes said.
Officers from Michigan State Police, the Wexford County Sheriff’s Department and Cadillac City Police attended the meeting, as did representatives from Northern Lakes Community Mental Health, Family Health Care, the health department and the community attended the meeting.
“A good syringe exchange program is not about the syringe,‘ Lynch said. “It’s about the modeling.‘
When people who inject drugs get clean needles through needle exchange programs, they’re also making contact with people who can refer them to services, help them get into rehab, and other steps toward saving their lives.
People in recovery from drug addiction help the programs work, according to Lynch. Getting clean can take multiple attempts — relapse is understood to be a part of the process of overcoming addition — and people who are in recovery can speak to active users about their experiences.
In Michigan, an uptick in Hepatitis C outbreaks are linked to the opioid misuse epidemic.
Wexford County’s Hepatitis C rate is higher than the state’s per-100,000 rate; Michigan’s is 105 per 100,000 people and Wexford County’s rate is 123 per 100,000.
“One of the biggest growing groups of people getting Hep C, are those under 40, and that is primarily driven by injection drug use,‘ Dr. Morse said.
Even after getting treatment for Hepatitis C, somebody who uses a dirty needle — blood residue in the chamber of a syringe or on a needle that is contaminated with Hepatitis C remains infectious for 64 days; in comparison, blood with HIV is no longer infectious after the blood dries — can re-infect themselves. A clean needle keeps them safe and the people with whom they might share a needle.
Harm Reduction Michigan also distributes naloxone, the drug that can reverse an opioid overdose.
Data presented by Dr. Morse shows that syringe services programs (SSPs) in Michigan have been working.
More people are getting tested for HIV and Hepatitis C through the programs. More people are getting referred to substance abuse treatment and more people are actually receiving treatment.
The most staggering statistic Dr. Morse shared was that of naloxone. In 2017, SSPs gave out 605 naloxone kits. In 2019, they distributed 9,331 kits, an increase of 1,442%. Those kits saved lives. In 2017, there were 55 reports of overdose reversals. This year, there were 779 reversals, a 1,316% increase.
Lynch and Morse’s presentations covered the statistics and the underlying philosophy of needle exchange programs.
“I like to tell people if we think about addictions, more like obesity, we’d be a little more on target than how we’ve been handling it,‘ Lynch said. “If somebody was morbidly obese, we wouldn’t say to them, ‘Hey you know if you don’t lose 150 of those 300 pounds within the next six months, sorry but we have put you in jail and you’re going to lose custody of your children.’‘
Hughes said he hoped to invite stakeholders for further discussion in January.