Officials should monitor needle exchange

An editorial from The Intelligencer/Wheeling News-Register

WHEELING, W.Va. — Has it come to this? That drug addicts are to be furnished with syringes, courtesy of taxpayers? In some places – now including Ohio County – it has.

Wheeling-Ohio County Board of Health members voted unanimously this week to establish a “needle exchange” program here. Once a week, people who use syringes to abuse drugs such as heroin will be able to exchange used needles for clean ones. The program will be located at Northwood Health System’s building on Eoff Street.

At one time – not so long ago, sadly – that would have been viewed by many as outrageous. But we, as families as well as a society, have allowed drug abuse to become an epidemic that threatens to swallow up much and many that we hold dear. Too many Ohio Valley residents already have experienced that heartbreak.

Needle exchange programs have been adopted in communities throughout the country for two reasons.

First, hardcore drug addicts often reuse and share needles. That spreads diseases including hepatitis, tuberculosis and HIV. Those infected can transmit diseases in other ways to people who do not abuse drugs.

Providing sterile needles to the addicts can reduce the spread of disease.

Another justification for exchanges is that they put addicts in contact with health care professionals who can screen them for other diseases – and perhaps convince them to get help for their drug dependence.

In essence, then, needle exchanges can help protect both addicts and the general public from some diseases. They also hold promise for getting some drug abusers into treatment.

Drug abuse has become so pervasive that we have no choice but to employ every weapon at our disposal in the war against it. Needle exchanges fall into that category.

But – and this is an enomormous “but” – they cannot be limited just to handing out clean syringes. Other components of the program must be pursued diligently.

Health board members have acted decisively and courageously. For that they are to be commended and supported. However, it is imperative they monitor the local initiative, ensuring it does the good for which it was designed. If it fails in that, the plug should be pulled immediately.

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