The Thurston County Syringe Exchange Program began in 1993 as a pilot project in response to increases in new HIV infections among the sexual partners of injection drug users, as well as in children born to infected mothers.
The exchange works to stop the transmission of blood-borne pathogens, thus preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C.
The program strives to be even more relevant in trying to prevent further injury to intravenous drug users by educating them about less harmful injection techniques. In collaboration with The Olympia Free Clinic, the program offers wound care, with the goal of reducing the need for hospitalization.
Preventing illness costs less than treating it, and it provides a significant cost savings to taxpayers.
The program also provides free and confidential HIV counseling and testing.
The exchange is a nonjudgmental provider that meets addicts where they are. Because of this, it is a safe place for people to seek help and referrals to treatment and social services. For many, it is the first step on the road to recovery.
The exchange also serves the broader community by training people on how to stop the spread of blood-borne pathogens and how to recognize overdose. It offers “Harm Reduction Policy and Your Agency” to a variety of audiences, including chemical dependency treatment providers. It offers internships for undergraduates, preceptorships for future nurses, and residency learning opportunities for physicians.
Thurston County Syringe Exchange Program accepts and trains community volunteers, including those who are seeking opportunities to complete their community service.
A recent survey of exchange participants revealed that the scope of our Syringe Exchange Program reaches beyond the borders of Thurston County by also serving residents of Mason, Lewis, Grays Harbor, Pierce and Pacific counties. Four of those counties have higher opioid overdose death rates than the statewide rate of 9 deaths per 100,000.
Through a collaboration with The Center for Opioid Safety Education at the University of Washington, our program recently began distributing Naloxone, a medication that reverses opiate overdose. Naloxone has been distributed throughout the city of Olympia by street outreach group The Emma Goldman Youth Homeless Outreach Project. Both of these efforts have helped to keep Thurston County’s overdose rate lower than that of neighboring counties.
The exchange is working to share information about the Naloxone Distribution Program with all the people we serve.
The exchange started distributing Naloxone on Feb. 11, and the first overdose reversal happened just six days later, on Feb. 17. By the end of March, three more reversals had been reported — one in Thurston County, one in Pierce County and one in Lewis County.
While the Thurston County Syringe Exchange Program may carry a degree of controversy and stigma, the program provides protection from blood-borne pathogens for our entire community.
Nationally we are in the midst of what has been called a heroin epidemic, and Thurston County is affected. The exchange is a prevention model that promotes and protects the health of residents in our county and reduces the societal cost for treating the ill.
Malika Lamont, the exchange’s coordinator, continues to lead and guide the program through a time of shrinking revenue and increased need of many of our most vulnerable community members. If you or someone you love suffers from opioid addiction, consider getting some Naloxone to have on hand. It could make the difference between life and death.
Naloxone is available not only through the Thurston County Syringe Exchange Program, but also at Samy’s Health Mart Pharmacy or the Tumwater Costco pharmacy. Information on preventing and reversing overdose is available at stopoverdose.org. If and when you or your loved one is ready to talk about treatment, the exchange can provide links to resources for help.
Reach Dr. Rachel C. Wood, health officer for Thurston and Lewis counties, at 360-867-2501, email@example.com, or @ThurstonHealth on Twitter.