Needle exchange program sees mostly white suburban kids ages 18 to 25

Needle exchange program aims to stop spread of disease
Needles are exchanged at the Free Clinic's needle exchange van. (Source: WOIO)
Needles are exchanged at the Free Clinic's needle exchange van. (Source: WOIO)

CLEVELAND, OH (WOIO) - The needle exchange program was started in 1995 as a response to growing numbers of HIV infections. In 1994, according to the Cleveland Department of Public Health, 18 percent of newly diagnosed HIV cases in Cleveland were found in intravenous drug users.

The program aims not to enable addicts, but to protect those who use drugs from communicable diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C, and to protect everyone else from disease and from discarded dirty needles.

While Cleveland 19 was on the Free Clinic's needle exchange van, one couple responded favorably to Chico Lewis' offer of help, saying "we're done, we're ready."

Lewis told the couple about places where the pair could get the Vivitrol shot or Suboxone to try to get them off heroin. They said they were ready once he told them all they needed was a Medicaid card.

Vivitrol works as an opiate "blocker," meaning that it attaches to opioid receptors in the brain and "blocks the pleasurable feelings associated with taking opioids."

Suboxone is also used for medication assisted treatment of opioid dependence.

Every client who came up to the van was told about programs available in the county to help them fight their addiction. Each client was also asked about the last time they were tested for HIV and Hepatitis C, and reminded that they need to get checked frequently as IV drug users. While Cleveland 19 was on the van at least one person got tested for HIV. A registered nurse on the van is able to immediately perform rapid tests, check wounds and provide other medical services.

Last year, the program exchanged its highest number of needles, 477,000, from nearly 5,000 different people, and the demand keeps growing.

Clients who exchange needles at the van are given one clean needle for every dirty needle they turn in. They are also provided with kits that contain things like bleach and condoms.

They are also each told about Narcan kits that Project D.A.W.N., Deaths Avoided With Naloxone, provide free of charge. One woman said she had several, and knows their importance all too well -- her roommate died of an overdose right across the hall. She had a kit, but didn't know he was using, or in trouble. She teared up as she told the story -- one of thousands of sad stories Lewis has heard over the years.

"A lot of people just think that people should just put it down and go to church and all that. Ha! I wish that did work!" said Lewis.

He brings empathy to his work. He is an alcoholic, and said he considers himself lucky he never became addicted to heroin.

"We'll see them come in looking bright smiling face and everything and then the next two weeks totally different look," said Lewis.

He said the van's most frequent customers are white suburban kids ages 18 to 25, so their fall to rock bottom starts from a much higher place.

"These kids have more access to a lot of things that a poor white kid over here or a poor black kid over here don't have the way of getting the money," said Lewis. "It's showing up where it shouldn't be showing up in society's eyes."

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