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Syringe Services: A Critical Piece to Ending the HIV Epidemic

In April, I visited the Austin Harm Reduction Coalition (AHRC), a Syringe Access Fund (SAF) grantee. Syringe exchange is currently illegal in Texas and AHRC’s dedicated team of staff and volunteers face the risk of legal action every day. They operate the exchange through a mobile unit, disposing of used syringes and providing new equipment and wound care. They also cooperate with another organization in-house to run an STI, HIV, and hepatitis C testing clinic once a week out of their office space. People who test positive are connected to care.

AHRC’s work is vital to ending the HIV epidemic, especially given societal hurdles. That’s why Andrew Knox, the organization’s executive director, wants to legalize syringe exchange in Texas. He knows how essential the syringe services program is to the community and he wants to provide additional services. Specifically, AHRC aims to open a full-service medical clinic that offers care to the most marginalized members of the community, many of whom access the group’s mobile unit. But state funds are not available for AHRC to provide these life-saving services because syringe exchange is not legal in Texas.

As the program manager for both the Syringe Access Fund and Sector Transformation, which focuses on organizational change, I understand and empathize with AHRC’s dilemma. The organization runs the only syringe exchange in the area, but in order to keep up with changes in the HIV-funding landscape, it must adapt. This is a daunting challenge without community support and the ability to use state funds.

AIDS United has managed the Syringe Access Fund (SAF) for over 10 years. A national grantmaking collaborative generously funded by the Elton John AIDS Foundation, Henry Van Ameringen, Irene Diamond Fund, Levi Strauss Foundation, Open Society Foundations, and AIDS United, the SAF supports service providers and policy projects that reduce use of shared syringes and ensure their safe disposal. A proven prevention tool, syringe services programs reduce HIV rates and facilitate access to care for people who are turned away from traditional service providers.

Syringe exchange remains one of the most controversial HIV prevention tools in the United States. Many people mistakenly believe that by providing access to new injection equipment, we are enabling people to use drugs. But the reality is that syringe services programs provide dignity and humanity to a stigmatized and marginalized population. They also connect people who use drugs to the health care system, with many offering both HIV and hepatitis C testing and treatment. Moreover, if people want to reduce or stop using substances, on-site staff can help discuss a plan with them.

To many, “drug-user health” is an oxymoron. There is a common argument that a person who uses drugs doesn’t care about their health because if they did, they wouldn’t be using drugs. Folks who have interacted with people who use drugs know this is not the case. A person is not defined by their drug use and, like anyone, is more complex than a single activity in which they engage. Syringe services programs provide the vital support to people who use drugs by treating them humanely. Traditional service providers have largely failed to treat people who use drugs because they oversimplify addiction to the act of using. Syringe exchange organizations help to provide a dignified alternative.

It is past time for syringe exchange to become legal across the United States. It is a proven and effective tool for linking people to care and reducing HIV and hepatitis C transmission. Organizations that provide vital services to at-risk communities must be able to operate in the open. And overdose and hepatitis C rates should not be on the rise—as they unfortunately are nationally—when we have proven methods to decrease them.

The importance of the Syringe Access Fund is evident in places like Austin, where injection-drug use continues to be prevalent. Without the support of SAF dollars, vital organizations would cease to exist.

Upcoming Funding Opportunity - Syringe Access Fund!

AIDS United will begin accepting applications for the Syringe Access Fund on September 15, 2017. The Syringe Access Fund is a national grantmaking collaborative that supports service providers and policy projects that reduce use of shared syringes and ensure their safe disposal. Learn more here.

Posted By: Zach Ford, Program Manager - Wednesday, June 21, 2017

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