Underneath a microscope, a used needle is frayed and tainted. It’s jagged and can rip the skin instead of just piercing it. A new needle is sharp, crisp, and clean. It can pierce the skin without ripping or getting caught on anything. It would make sense that a person would rather use a new needle every time they use drugs. Unfortunately, new needles can be rather expensive or hard to find. They’re also hard to obtain, especially for someone who abuses substances like heroin. Without clean needles, disease and organs can be damaged by the sharing of needles or reusing of needles.
Public health and clean needles
When a person reuses or shares needles, they are at-risk for HIV, Hepatitis C, and other blood-transmittable diseases. Even if someone tries to clean these needles, there is a very good chance that they are still contaminated.
What many people don’t realize is how fast diseases can spread. HIV survives at room temperature, and can even last four weeks. The virus won’t die immediately after it’s removed from the skin.
If one person has HIV and they share a needle with two people, they can become infected. Now, if those two new people share with two more people each, we have six new cases of HIV. Plus the first person who shared it. If these next four people share with two people each, then we end up with 14 new cases of HIV on top of the original first person. Each of these people can start a new tree to multiply HIV rather easily if they are careless. HIV doesn’t have immediate symptoms, so many won’t realize they have it before they share it.
For this reason, there has been a public health outcry looking for clean needles for people who abuse drugs. There are programs out there that allow people with dirty needles to exchange them for free or for a small fee.
Is drug use encouraged by these programs?
Many cities have sites where people can bring used needles to be traded in. Some governments will invest in outreach to take needles from those who use them most. Washington DC is one of the places with a proven needle exchange program. The ban on needle exchange programs was lifted in 2007, and by 2011, HIV cases dropped 80 percent where the reported mode of transmission was injection.
There are people who believe that employing needle exchange programs promotes drug use. To counter this, the World Health Organization believes that needle exchange programs are actually effective. They don’t increase drug use and they’re much cheaper than treating the HIV cases that arise from shared needles.