Syringe exchange struggles to keep up with demand

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The state’s main syringe exchange can’t keep up with demand for clean needles among injection drug users.

The Alaska AIDS Assistance Association, or Four A’s, collects used syringes in its Anchorage office and gives out new supplies, primarily to people using heroin and other opioids. The idea is to reduce the spread of disease and direct people abusing drugs toward recovery options. But Development Director Petra Davis says starting next week, they’re scaling back hours.

“It has become unrealistic to expect that Four A’s can sustain this alone,” Davis said. “We need other health agencies, we need other addiction agencies, we need other social service agencies to take on another syringe exchange. Realistically, Anchorage needs a lot.”

On a busy day, 150 clients will get needles from the small office on the edge of Spenard. Davis says between this fiscal year and last the number of individuals coming in went up 37 percent, driven in part by new users.

“In FY17 alone we saw over 1,500 individuals who expressed that it was their first time using the exchange,” she said.

Davis says the demand for the syringe exchange has overwhelmed the organization’s other services. Four A’s was set up to help people living with HIV/AIDS. But the increase in drug users coming to the needle exchange has made some existing clients uncomfortable.

“What made us open our eyes to that something needed to change in the syringe exchange was our HIV-care clients, some of them no longer felt comfortable coming into the office,” she said. “And we are first and foremost set up to care for those clients that are living with HIV.”

Four A’s is cutting the syringe exchanges hours from 40 to 17 per week, mostly in the afternoons. Davis says that will allow staff more time and capacity for other services related to HIV/AIDS assistance and prevention. The program’s reduced hours go into effect on Tuesday.

There is no other program filling the gap in Anchorage. The only other similar programs on the road system are in Homer and Fairbanks, both of which are much smaller. Four A’s runs another exchange in Juneau.

Zachariah Hughes reports on city & state politics, arts & culture, drugs, and military affairs in Anchorage and South Central Alaska.

@ZachHughesAK About Zachariah

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