After a slow start in the final months of 2016, the Allen County Syringe Services Program has been progressing well, said Allen County Health Commissioner Dr. Deborah McMahan on Monday.
"We have been very pleased with the people who have come in," said McMahan about the center at 519 Oxford St. that has been open since last November. "They have been responsible and have brought in their dirty needles."
McMahan gave an update on the program — which provides new syringes to drug users in exchange for dirty ones to prevent the spread of HIV and hepatitis C — at Monday evening's quarterly meeting of the Fort Wayne-Allen County Department of Health.
In an interesting development, one of the primary issues with the controversial program — that there would be significantly more new needles going out than dirty needles coming in — McMahan reported Monday that thus far the program has given out only four percent more new needles than dirty ones taken in.
"The (exchange rate) has been better than I expected," McMahan said. "They don't want to be caught with that kind of stuff (by law enforcement), but they are being pretty responsible, so I'm pleased."
The amount of "repeat customers" has been a positive, McMahan said. It shows the comfort and safety of the program to the point that users are coming back to exchange needles. The word of mouth of those positive experiences has brought in more people, keeping dangerous dirty needles out of public circulation.
McMahan said that about 10 percent of people who have visited the facility have agreed to be referred for substance abuse treatment. Around a third have undergone testing for hepatitis C and HIV. The Community Harvest Food Bank has also assisted visitors by donating food to those in need.
The program also received a $15,000 grant from the state. While it cannot be used for any supplies involved in drug use such as needles or tourniquets, it can be utilized for staffing and other needs.
According to the county's infectious disease report, the first quarter of 2017 has had 106 investigations into potential hepatitis C infections, up from 70 through the same time frame a year ago. Despite that, McMahan said it is impossible to compare the number of hepatitis C cases to the exchanged needles when attempting to determine the usefulness of the program.
"It takes a lot of sophistication to evaluate the effectiveness of a (syringe-exchange program), especially in the middle of an outbreak," McMahan said. "The Centers for Disease Control says clearly to not try and study the correlation because it takes a lot of money to study."
The Allen County Syringe Exchanges Program is open from 5 to 8 p.m. on Tuesdays.
In other news from Monday's meeting:
- Decatur native Dr. Sarah GiaQuinta was formerly introduced as the Executive Director of the Institute for Children's Health and Wellness. The organization focuses on improving the lives of children in Allen County through community-based problem solving and solutions to lower the estimated 20 percent of kids in the county who are living below the poverty line.
GiaQuinta is a graduate of the IU School of Medicine with a background in pediatrics.
- The board voted unanimously to pass amendments to Allen County's Sanitation Standards for Lodging Establishments.
The primary changes involve focusing more on health hazards at complexes that house multiple guests throughout the year — including hotels, motels and inns — and less on aesthetic issues.
The amendments center on limiting dangers from pests (cockroaches, bedbugs, mice), too hot of water temperature that could scald small children and trash issues.