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Clark County extends syringe exchange for two more years

Dr. Eric Yazel is in front of a cart of supplies at the Clark County Health Department's syringe exchange program.
Clark County Health Officer Dr. Eric Yazel explains the different services the county's syringe exchange program offers in this 2020 file photo. The Clark County Commissioners have just extended the program through July 2024.

The Clark County Commissioners unanimously approved extending the county’s syringe services program for another two years, through July 2024.

The program, which started in 2017, provides clean syringes to people who use IV drugs, in exchange for used ones. The goal is to help prevent infections associated with reusing or sharing needles ⁠— like viral hepatitis and HIV. It’s funded through a series of grants from organizations at the local, state and national level. 

Clark County’s initiative is one of fewer than 10 syringe services programs in the state. It opened in response to a rise in opioid use, and following the HIV outbreak in neighboring Scott County, where more than 200 people contracted the virus between 2014 and 2015.

In addition to facilitating the syringe exchange, staff at the site in Jeffersonville also help with other health care needs, connecting participants to substance use treatment, wound care and HIV testing and prevention. The program is part of an overall strategy known as harm reduction, which aims to help people who use drugs stay alive and as healthy as possible. 

The Clark County Health Department reports 688 people used the program last year, for a total of more than 1,600 visits. Clark County Health Officer Dr. Eric Yazel said more than half of participants are also in addiction recovery programs. 

“I think that there’s a perception that we’re enabling use and things like that,” he said. “You know, when you have more than half of your people in recovery, that's important also.”

From December 2019 to this April, the program gave out almost 730 free doses of naloxone, the opioid overdose reversal drug. Staff also provided more than 5,100 referrals for PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis for HIV), since the start of the program. 

Syringe service programs aim for a 100% exchange rate, meaning that a person would receive only as many needles as they return. Opponents worry such programs could lead to more needles being out in the community, but studies show fewer needles left on the streets in areas with syringe services programs than those without. 

Health department numbers show that in 2020, the program had around a 90% return rate. But last year, the exchange brought in more needles than it gave out. 

“Our return rate was 109%,” Yazel said. “We actually took a net 5,000 syringes off the street through our program."

Clark County’s program is located at the health department, 1201 Wall Street in Jeffersonville. It’s open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Aprile Rickert is LPM's Southern Indiana reporter. Email Aprile at arickert@lpm.org.

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