By Greg Saulmon
July 11, 2012
A unanimous vote Monday by the city's Board of Health and subsequent approval by Mayor Alex B. Morse paved the way for Tapestry Health to begin operating a needle exchange program here this week, making Holyoke the fifth city in Massachusetts to host such a program since the passage of a 1995 law authorizing up to 10 needle exchange programs statewide.
“If you look at the data in Holyoke it’s obvious that something has to be done,” Morse said. “The needle exchange program has been very effective in reducing the transmission of HIV and hepatitis C in communities across Massachusetts and that is why I support it.”
The service is already being offered at Tapestry's office at 15-A Main Street.
"We have had a few exchanges," said Timothy W. Purington, director of prevention services for Tapestry Health said. "Most importantly, we're getting the word out."
Purington, a former city councilor, said the needle exchange program will be a crucial component of Tapestry's extensive HIV prevention work in a city that has the third-highest rate of people living with HIV or AIDS in the state. "We've been combining services for HIV prevention in Holyoke for years and years," Purington said. "This act of the city allows us to use the most effective prevention tools we have to prevent the spread of HIV."
Services at Tapestry's Holyoke needle exchange program include sterile syringes, safe disposal of syringes, HIV counseling and testing, hepatitis C screening and screening for sexually transmitted infections, addiction counseling, overdose prevention training, harm reduction education, and referrals to treatment programs. Residents may also drop off used injection equipment such as insulin syringes.
“From a public safety standpoint this is an important milestone for the city,” Morse said. “This will get needles off our streets and away from parks, and protect children, residents and first responders.”
The launch of the Holyoke program was applauded by Rebecca Haag, president and CEO of the AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts. Since needle exchange programs were established in Massachusetts, Haag said in a press release, the percentage of new cases of HIV attributable to injection drug use dropped from 41 percent in 1995 to under 10 percent in 2009.
“Aggressive prevention, education, and outreach to injection drug users is one of the many ways Massachusetts has been able to reduce new diagnoses of HIV by 54 percent since 1999," Haag said. "This has spared more than 5,000 people who otherwise would have become infected with HIV untold suffering, and it will also save the Commonwealth more than $2 billion in health care expenditures."
Records maintained by the Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services show that 301 people in Holyoke were reported to be living with HIV infection or AIDS as of December 31, 2010. The city's average annual HIV diagnosis rate from 2007-2009 was 18.7 per 100,000 residents -- nearly double the state average of 9.4 per 100,000.
Injection drug use accounts for a high percentage of the city's HIV and AIDS cases. State data show that 30% of the city's HIV infection diagnoses from 2007 to 2009 were traced to injection drug use, and 39% of those living with HIV or AIDS in the city as of Dec. 31, 2010 had been infected through injection drug use.
The state law authorizing needle exchange services requires an organization to secure local approval before launching a program. Once local approval is obtained, the state grants the program's final green-light. Prior to the launch of the service at Tapestry's Holyoke site, no new programs had been approved in Massachusetts since the AIDS Support Group of Cape Cod opened a needle exchange in Provincetown in 1996.
Boston and Cambridge are also home to needle exchange programs, and the AIDS Support Group of Cape Cod also offers a "Mid and Upper Cape" program that offers injection drug user registration only.
Advocates have lobbied for a needle exchange program in Holyoke since at least 2001, when voters defeated a nonbinding referendum ballot question asking for approval of a program.
Tapestry's needle exchange program on Center Street in Northampton opened in December, 1995. During its first year in operation, the program served 195 people and took 6,000 needles off the streets.
In 2011, Purington said, the Northampton program served 960 people and exchanged 83,035 syringes. From July 1, 2011 to June 30, 2012, the Northampton program provided 347 HIV tests, 151 Hepatitis C tests, and over 250 STD tests.
Tapestry's primary objective is to reduce infectious disease, Purington said. To get there, though, the agency must go beyond offering clean needles, supporting clients in their efforts to fight addiction.
"Probably 90% of the work we do is helping people figure out what they're going to do about their drug problem," Purington said.
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