New drug use and HIV harm reduction center opens in the Mat-Su Borough

Seating area in the new Alaskan AIDS Assistance Association harm reduction center in Wasilla. The center offers safer drug use and sexual health supplies along with HIV testing and will soon offer Hepatitis testing and case management. (Photo courtesy of the Alaskan AIDS Assistance Association)

A new harm reduction center recently opened in Wasilla. The center serves people looking to reduce HIV and Hepatitis transmission and to reduce opioid overdoses. It will be the third center run by 4As, or Alaskan AIDS Assistance Association. Their first center, in Anchorage, opened in 1983. 

Robin Lutz is executive director at the association. She said the organization saw a need in the Mat-Su Borough. 

“We have a lot of people who were driving as far as Talkeetna down to Anchorage to get clean supplies,” said Lutz. “And for us, what that means is having access to sterile syringes for injection, drug users having access to other things like antibacterial wipes, tourniquets, HIV testing, condoms, lube, anything that someone might need to lower their risk, depending on what kind of drug injection they’re doing.” 

The Mat-Su Borough has also seen a spate of opioid overdoses recently. 

The new center uses a harm reduction approach, which Lutz said means they acknowledge that people do use drugs. Lutz said harm reduction reduces risks while people are using drugs and it can help make the path to sobriety more likely. 

“People who access syringe access programs like ours are actually 70% more likely to complete drug treatment if they choose to go,” said Lutz. “And to me, that speaks about stigma and access to information and support. We welcome people with open arms where they’re at.” 

The center, which had a soft opening at the end of April, will connect HIV clients with health care and housing resources. They provide supplies for safer sex and drug use, HIV and Hepatitis testing and Narcan for treating opioid overdoses. 

The organization also operates a mobile needle exchange. Lutz said they’ve heard anecdotally from people there that they’re using the available Narcan. 

“We have people come in every day to the van and say things like, ‘I reversed an overdose last week,’” said Lutz. “Those are lives that are super valuable that a community member was able to intervene in and save. And we are so happy to be able to be a part of that process and really proud of the people who are out there really taking care of each other, because that’s what that’s about.” 

Lutz said they faced some difficulties finding a place to rent for the new center due to stigma. But, she’s glad that so many in the Mat-Su Borough recovery community welcome the new center. 

Beyond supplies and case management, the organization hopes to create a relaxing space for people who face stigma regularly in their communities. The center has a lounge area and they provide coffee, water, granola bars and menstrual products. 

“We believe that everyone, especially people who use drugs, especially people who are living with HIV, absolutely deserve love and care,” said Lutz. “So, we’re excited to be a bigger part of the community and welcome people.” 

RELATED: Troopers warn of lethal batch of drugs in Mat-Su after 3 overdose deaths in 24 hours

Rachel Cassandra covers health and wellness for Alaska Public Media. Reach her Read more about Rachel here.

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