By Jon Dowding
Photo via Prevention Point Philadelphia.
On a rainy Thursday afternoon just after 3 p.m., three schoolchildren pass two small vans on their way home, where a line of people wait to trade their dirty needles for clean ones. The children just ignore it with practiced indifference.
At the corner of North 11th St. and Indiana Ave., Prevention Point Philadelphia (PPP) runs a weekly syringe exchange to distribute clean needles in exchange for dirty ones. A worker at the site said although the exchanges are conducted in a neighborhood, the community is “very appreciative” of their efforts. Due to company policy, does not allow workers to give their name without approval from the headquarters, he was unable to give his name.
Prevention Point Philadelphia began its syringe exchange programs in 1991 at the height of the AIDS epidemic. Their main goal was to provide clean needles for intravenous drug users (IDU) in order to minimize the spread of HIV, AIDS and other blood-borne illnesses. It has become a multi-service health organization for the most vulnerable and difficult-to-reach populations of greater Philadelphia.
The organization provides four other services, aside from the Syringe Exchange Program (SEP), including the Transhealth Info Project, John Paul Hammond Center for Harm Reduction, Stabilization, Treatment and Engagement Program (STEP), and other prevention programs. All of their programs strive to decrease harm caused by high-risk behaviors such as the sharing of dirty needles.
The SEP also administers confidential HIV testing and provides counseling, information and strategies to reduce the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C. The sites further administer Hepatitis C screening along with harm reduction education and referrals to legal services.
When SEP began, the possession of syringes was illegal in Philadelphia, forcing it to operate illegally until 1992 when Mayor Ed Rendell legalized syringe exchanges in the city. According to the Prevention Point website, SEP distributes over 1.4 million syringes annually to more than 18,000 registered clientele at six weekly exchange sites throughout the city. The City of Philadelphia believes Prevention Point Philadelphia reduced rates of IDUs infected with HIV/AIDS from 23% in 2004 to 10% in 2010.
“You don’t have to be a user to feel the effects of drug usage,” said the worker at the site on North 11th St.
“There are not a lot of services in the community… [so] people don’t always have access to these services,” he said. The worker also said there is never a set number of people who come to the vans and the amount of people of people fluctuates, creating “no good or bad days.”
The organization occasionally receives backlash from communities who believe PPP encourages the use of intravenous drugs.
“There is a pushback,” he said, “because of the stigma associated with it and because of a lack of awareness in the community.”
According to an article posted by the National Institute of Drug Abuse, the stigma associated with drug addicts in society is what causes most addicts to not seek treatment as well as some pharmaceutical companies to not create new treatments for addicts. The stigma will only diminish in time as people begin to understand addiction not as a weakness, but as a treatable disease.
The worker also said some neighborhoods oppose the placement of where the outreach vans operate. The majority of the community ultimately sees the importance of the program because of decreased availability in the community for the services PPP provides, he further explained.
Even though Prevention Point is the only sanctioned organization in the region to offer a syringe exchange, “it doesn’t start or end with us,” the worker said. He said the important part of the program is “giving back and preventing the spread’ of diseases in the community.