It's about time people acknowledged that judging drug users would do nothing productive to help them. In the US this week, two new programs are launching that should help addicts be a little safer: Walgreens Healthcare Clinic will begin offering to test for HIV and hepatitis C next week, and Las Vegas is set to introduce clean syringe vending machines to stop infections from dirty needles.
HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, works by killing cells that fight disease and infection, thus weakening a person's immune syndrome. 1.2 million people in the US today are living with HIV, with 39,513 people being diagnosed in 2015.
On April 25, Walgreens Healthcare Clinic locations will offer STI (HIV, hepatitis B and C, and gonorrhea) testing, they announced yesterday. The method and speed of the testing will vary based on what is being assessed. The service will be available in 18 markets:
- Ohio (Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus)
- Texas (Dallas, Houston)
- Denver, Colorado
- Kansas City, Missouri
- Tennessee (Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville)
- Las Vegas, Nevada
- Louisville, Kentucky
- Orlando, Florida
- Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
- Arizona (Phoenix, Tucson)
- Washington, DC
- Wichita, Kansas
Healthcare providers at Walgreens Healthcare Clinics in the Houston area will also be allowed to prescribe PrEP, a medication given to HIV-negative people to "proactively protect" against infection with the virus. The pharmacy staff and store managers will also be required to complete a course developed in collaboration with National Alliance of HIV Education and Workforce Development, about the stigma of HIV and preventing the disease.
Senior Manager of Virology for Walgreens, Glen Pietrandoni, said:
With our long history of working with the HIV/AIDS community, we are as committed as ever to the ongoing, incredible advancement in HIV testing, prevention and treatment that has occurred over the last decade, and to providing greater access to high-quality testing and prevention services through the clinics and our pharmacies.
This Walgreens testing will also include Nevada, a state where there are 20 cases of HIV for every 100,000 people, which is one of the highest HIV rates in the US.
Other efforts in the silver state are also underway. In the city of Las Vegas, they will be hosting new vending machines that will dispense clean needles.
Clean needles are imperative in stopping the rate of HIV, as it is spread through bodily fluids of an infected person, such as blood, semen, pre-seminal fluids, rectal fluids, vaginal fluids, and breast milk. So when an infected person shares a used needle with another injection drug user, the risk of HIV for the person increases immensely.
Therefore, free clean syringes is great news for a country that is home to an opioid epidemic with 5,800 injection drug users, and where 4% of new HIV diagnoses in 2015 were caused due to injection drug use. Across the US, heroin use has doubled in the past ten years for youths between the ages of 18 to 25.
These new vending machines are an effort to stop the spread of hepatitis B, hepatitis C, and HIV. They will also be located in places like the Community Counseling Center of Southern Nevada, that will hopefully lead to drug users seeking treatment. The machines will only be available for use during the business hours of the establishment they reside in.
The program, funded by Trac-B Exchange, organized in association with the Southern Nevada Health District and the Nevada AIDS Research and Education Society, will start out with just three vending machines, each of which retails for $15,000. While the machines are completely free, they will require participants to fill out a form for the three organizing groups and to use an eight-digit ID number that will track their use. The machines will dispense a kit that contains new syringes, alcohol wipes, safe sex supplies, and a disposal compartment for the used needles. Each user can only have two kits per week.
This is a big step in the right direction for a state where syringe and needle possession was illegal until 2013. This pilot program will run for 6 months to test its effectiveness. Similar projects in other states, such as needle exchange programs, have proven effective. In Australia, where the vending machine syringes idea was pioneered, they found no "adverse effects" from the machines, and some studies found they did, in fact, reduce the spread of diseases.
Hey, while you're here, there's some other cool news in HIV prevention and awareness around the world. In India the government just passed a bill outlawing discrimination against people with HIV/AIDS. And over in Malawi, Felistus Ngwira is encouraging teens to get involved with the project Hip Hop for HIV, which is about "youths using their talents to fight the pandemic." As a global community, it's imperative we keep making these steps in the right direction.