Needle exchange programs have quietly saved lives in Wisconsin for decades

Vivent Health started the needle exchange in 1994 to reduce the spread of HIV
Needle exchange illustration
Illustration by James Heimer

Isthmus LogoEditor’s Note: This special report was supposed to be a cover story for Isthmus, but then the local alt-weekly newspaper announced it would go dark on March 19 due to COVID-19, meaning this story wouldn’t make it to print. Isthmus editor Judith Davidoff graciously agreed to publish the piece in Madison Magazine to share it with our audience while Isthmus print operations remain paused. You’ll also find this story on isthmus.com. We hope this collaboration demonstrates Madison Magazine’s and Isthmus’ dedication to hyper-local storytelling, no matter the circumstances.

A nondescript minivan pulls into a parking lot in Cambridge. Zach climbs into the back seat and greets the driver, who hands over a brown paper bag full of needles, syringes, cookers, naloxone and other items related to injection drug use.

The supplies aren’t for Zach, who has been clean of heroin and cocaine for about three years, but for friends who are still in the throes of addiction and need clean injection supplies and naloxone, which reverses the effects of an opioid overdose.

The van comes from Vivent Health’s Lifepoint needle exchange program, which operates in Madison and nine other cities around Wisconsin. While COVID-19 has changed some of Lifepoint’s procedures, curbside pickup and the van services remain available to those who need it, but all orders must be called in to the patients’ local Vivent Health location.

“It’s beyond a blessing,” Zach says of the program, whose goal is to reduce the spread of dangerous bloodborne diseases among intravenous drug users. He agreed to speak about the program but asked that his last name not be used.

Vivent Health, formerly known as AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin, started the needle exchange in 1994 to reduce the spread of HIV, an immunodeficiency virus that, without treatment, can progress to AIDS and be fatal.

With the increase in opioid-related addiction in the past several years, offering free naloxone has become another central component of Lifepoint’s harm-reduction mission.

Zach knows the value of that service firsthand.

“I would honestly be dead if Lifepoint wasn’t around,” he says. “I’ve overdosed and been revived by [naloxone] from them. At least five or six more of my friends would be dead if I hadn’t revived them.”

Top health officials, including at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, agree that needle exchanges — also called syringe service programs or syringe access programs — have proven an effective public health initiative, though they remain controversial for some communities even as they struggle to address ballooning opioid addiction trends.

Says Scott Stokes, HIV section chief for the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, “I can’t think of an initiative that has been more heavily evaluated than syringe access programs.”

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