Program's point still ever sharp

Heart to Heart's syringe needle exchange has been operating since 1997.

Everett Maroon, executive director of Blue Mountain Heart to Heart, holds a bag of new syringew and needles used for the organization's needle-exchange program.

Everett Maroon, executive director of Blue Mountain Heart to Heart, holds a bag of new syringew and needles used for the organization's needle-exchange program. Photo by Michael Lopez.

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WALLA WALLA — Everett Maroon understands it’s a sticking point for people when they hear about Walla Walla’s needle exchange program.

“It’s probably the most controversial program we do at Heart to Heart.”

Maroon is executive director of Blue Mountain Heart to Heart, which does community outreach and education about AIDS, HIV and hepatitis C, and provides care for people in Walla Walla County living with the diseases.

Heart to Heart’s syringe needle exchange has been operating here since 1997, trading one used needle for one clean needle to a client base of people using injectable drugs. That helps prevent the spread of disease through sharing syringes or other injection equipment.

“And protecting those folks means protecting the community,” Maroon said, especially given the “skyrocketing” of heroin use in Washington.

When the needle exchange program was launched it was estimated it would handle about 3,500 needle trades a year.

“In 2013, we did 113,905,” said Maroon.

The needle exchange, in particular, can frustrate people who don’t realize the overall significance of providing clean needles to drug users, he said. “There’s a line of thinking that this enables drug users to continue their dependency and ‘Why should taxpayers foot that bill?’”

The answer is in the numbers.

Because the state has promoted and funded needle exchanges, only 8 percent or so of injectable drug users get HIV through needle use, according to Maroon.

“The national average across all the states is about 25 percent,” he said. “That means we’ve done a really good job.”

As well, two decades of data show that needle exchange programs don’t increase drug use. And eliminating such options don’t discourage it, either, he noted.

“There’s no evidence people don’t use if they can’t find a clean syringe,” Maroon said.

With its robust needle exchange program, Washington has the fifth-lowest HIV rate in the country, according to Washington Syringe Service Programs, a network of 20 exchange programs run by health departments and community-based organizations.

Infection with HIV — a precursor to AIDS — occurs through transfer of blood, semen, vaginal fluid or breast milk.

Eliminating syringe trade programs would mean drug users would have fewer avenues to find sterile syringes, Maroon said.

“Then they are sharing again,” he explained. “And if that happens, we really increase the risk that HIV can get a foothold in that community. And people are going to get sick.”

In turn, that will use more health-care dollars for illness rather than prevention, Maroon said, quoting data from the state syringe service. “For every dollar spent on syringe exchange, $3 to $7 are saved on future HIV care.”

Nationally, syringe exchange programs save millions of dollars in medical costs without increasing drug use or crime, the state syringe service stated in a recent news release.

“Viral hepatitis is estimated to be very high among injectors; 30 percent infection rates in young injectors, to 70-90 percent infection rates in injectors over (age) 30,” it stated.

Prevention has worked well in the Walla Walla Valley.

Statistically, Walla Walla County should have another five or so HIV sufferers, but Blue Mountain Heart to Heart strives to keep clients in treatment and taking anti-viral medications. That minimized the effects of the illness on the community as a whole, Maroon said.

The agency has been receiving about $20,000 a year from Washington state for the needle exchange work, although that money is uncertain from year to year.

“The rumor has been, unofficially, that syringe exchange funding will be cut for all portions of the state except King County,” Maroon said. “But it hasn’t happened yet.”

Heart to Heart was recently awarded a $28,000 grant from AIDS United to be spread over two years. Maroon said he and staff are able to keep costs in line with grant totals by watching how every dollar is spent. With the additional funding, plans are being made for outreach and education efforts.

Maroon will meet with partner organizations and elected officials in Olympia to gather support and potential funding to keep the syringe exchange functioning as heroin use increases and unsafe sex continues to be a health threat, he said.

“No one walks into my office saying they always have safe sex. They come in and report they discovered their partner has been unfaithful, they report their partner has been using injectable drugs, or they haven’t been practicing safe sex and now they’re worried.”

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