RIO GRANDE COUNTY— Rio Grande County Public Health is currently hosting a series of meetings to discuss opening a harm-reduction program which would include a hypodermic syringe-needle exchange within the county.
The SLV Health Access Risk Reduction Program (SHARRP) program has been operating in Alamosa County for over a year with many positive results. The program is administered in cooperation between the Alamosa County Public Health office and the San Luis Valley Area Health Education Center, (SLV AHEC). SHARRP has already seen 280 clients with at least 50 of these clients residing in Rio Grande County.
Though, SHARRP is a syringe-exchange program, Rio Grande County Public Health Nurse Paul Wertz said it is more of a point of entry into providing other helping services. Wertz works at the Alamosa SHARRP site once per month and believes that the most important thing they are doing is creating a trusting relationship with people who inject drugs. When they can trust the volunteers and staff at SHARRP, they can access help when they are ready to quit injecting drugs.
A comprehensive 2004 study by the World Health Organization (WHO) found a “compelling case that needle and syringe programs (NSPs), substantially and cost effectively reduce the spread of HIV among IDUs and do so without evidence of exacerbating injecting drug use at either the individual or societal level.” WHO’s findings have also been supported by the American Medical Association (AMA), which in 2000 adopted a position strongly supporting NSPs when combined with addiction counseling.
Rio Grande Public health director Emily Brown has led three community meetings and is collecting information to report to the county’s Board of Health. The board must approve the creation of any syringe exchange services programs within the county, and they anticipate voting on the program in December. Brown believes that this program is needed in the county and emphasizes the many additional services provided through the program, such as, referrals to mental health services, referrals for substance abuse treatment, HIV and hepatitis testing and treatment, overdose treatment and education, hepatitis A and B vaccines, as well as access to physical health services.
The primary service offered by SHARRP is the needle exchange program. Injecting drug users (IDUs) have the opportunity to bring in their used syringes and needles to be safely disposed of and in return are given sterile syringes and needles. This leads to fewer used syringes and needles being found in public areas such as trails, parks or waterways and also less injuries to innocent bystanders. Additional costs savings and public health benefits of the exchange program is the reduction of the spreading of diseases such as Hepatitis C and HIV.
SLV AHEC, Valley-Wide Health Systems, and the San Luis Valley Behavioral Health Group intend to work with Rio Grande County Public Health and Rio Grande Hospital to bring the SHARRP program to Rio Grande. These partners are among the many organizations in the San Luis Valley that have already started working to reduce the harm caused by drug use in the community. Brown points out that there are some successful programs already underway including the LEAD, or Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, which works to divert people who use illegal drugs away from being charged and convicted of a crime. Instead drug users are connected to case managers who provide resources and connections to mental health services, housing and vocational training.
Both of these programs employ the principles of harm reduction and accept that illegal drug use is a part of society and work to minimize harm instead of ignoring or punishing those who use the substances.
Anyone interested in learning more about SHARRP the next public meeting will be held Oct. 15 at 6:30 p.m. at the Rio Grande County Annex located at 925 Sixth Street in Del Norte. The meeting will be held in conjunction with Del Norte’s Neighborhood Watch group. Public health officials will also be available to discuss SHARRP at the South Fork Health Fair Nov. 2 from 6:30-10:30 a.m. at the South Fork Fire Department.