The Benefits of Needle Exchanges in Preventing HIV/AIDS and Promoting Public Health Safety

There are approximately 1.2 million people in the United States with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), according to HIV.gov. Anyone can get HIV, which can often develop into acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). However, HIV has “a disproportionate impact on certain populations, particularly racial and ethnic minorities and gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men.”

While many efforts exist to help limit the spread of the disease and educate the public — such as large urban centers with needle exchange programs — the disease still poses a significant public health threat to various communities. For nurses interested in a career in public health clinic settings, there is much to know about the current best practices for needle exchanges and their impact on at-risk populations.

How Do Needle Exchange Programs Work?

Needle exchange programs are community-based programs that provide safer-use materials, like new sterile needles and syringes, to individuals who use drugs via injection. They also facilitate the safe disposal of used syringes. Leaders at the state and local levels make decisions about each program’s operation, and some states have passed laws to ensure the programs remain active and accessible.

Needle exchanges are not just used for fostering safer drug use. These programs also offer community members many other services, including:

  • General healthcare screenings and infectious disease testing
  • Vaccinations
  • Education about overdoses and safer injection practices
  • Referrals to medical care, counseling and substance use disorder treatment
  • Distribution of naloxone to decrease opioid-related overdoses and deaths

What Is the Role of Nurse Administrators in Needle Exchange Programs?

Needle exchanges, sometimes referred to as syringe services programs (SSPs), require the expertise of experienced nursing administrators and leaders who promote safety for vulnerable populations and advocate for their continued healing and recovery. The success of SSPs relies on regular collaboration with community leaders, conducting data-driven assessments of residents’ ever-changing needs and developing forward-thinking policies to reduce the spread of disease.  A Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) program can equip nursing administrators with the necessary skills to take on these responsibilities.

What Are the Primary Benefits of Needle Exchange Programs?

Given the prominence of HIV/AIDS, needle exchange programs can substantially reduce transmission, prevent new exposures and improve the quality of life for those already infected. Here are four benefits of needle exchange programs:

  1. Prevent HIV infection. Of individuals 13 and older diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, 25% of infections connect directly to injection drug use, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). As the opioid epidemic continues to rage in many states, the number of preventable HIV infections may skyrocket, too. In fact, as of March 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) determined that 44 states were either already experiencing or at-risk of an HIV outbreak due to injection drug use. SSPs decrease the number of contaminated needles in a community to prevent further HIV infections.
  2. Prevent other fatal infections. HIV isn’t the only disease caused by sharing needles. Using needles to inject illicit substances may cause viral hepatitis, bacterial endocarditis and other deadly blood-borne pathogens. Needle exchange programs can reduce these occurrences, too.
  3. Uptake in treatment and recovery services. SSPs have a direct and proven impact on user recovery. Because of the range of services available, people who utilize SSP services are five times more likely to enter drug treatment and three times more likely to stop using drugs, says the CDC.
  4. Engage marginalized populations. People who use injectable drugs often go to great lengths to hide their addiction and take unnecessary risks, such as reusing or sharing needles. Needle exchange programs perform critical outreach to marginalized populations, connecting them to services that can improve their health and the health of entire communities.

While there are challenges to establishing successful needle exchange programs, they have proven benefits for individuals and communities. SSPs are an essential part of public health measures and one area where nurse administrators with an affinity for leadership can bring about meaningful change.

Learn more about Radford University’s online MSN in Nursing Administration program.

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