Garry Kemble and his wife Paige Panarello are recovering heroin users who are visiting to Camden’s syringe access program (SAP). They drop by a couple times a month for health services and to pick up clean syringes.
“If there was more of these places, I believe there would be a lot less diseases, a lot less overdoses, and a lot more people getting tested,” Kemble said.
Camden served nearly 5,000 new clients last year and handed out almost 200,000 needles. There are five sites through the state where intravenous users can get clean needles for free. But there’s no dedicated source of funding to keep them running.
“Thanks to the syringe access programs here in the state of New Jersey since 2007 when we got started, we have been able to reduce HIV AIDS by intravenous drug users by 70 percent,” said Martha Chavis, executive director of the Camden Area Health Education Center (AHEC).
Clients can drop off dirty needles, too — two out of every three needles handed out are returned. “We have heard from law enforcement and the community at large that everyone, including children, are finding fewer needles on the ground.”
The needle exchange is just one part of this program. It gets people in the door and then gives them access to a whole list of other health resources.
“We have an opportunity as we do our needle exchange of talking to these individuals to get them into drug rehabilitation care. We also have an opportunity to get them screened for sexually transmitted diseases or Hepatitis C, to provide them information about not overdosing. So it is a cost savings that is priceless,” Chavis said. Paige Panarello agrees:
“It’s not promoting drug use — if anything, it’s trying to keep the risk down and keep diseases down so people can be clean about this. If you’re going to use, you’re going to use. But they also help you and say ‘Hey, do you want to look into a program like methadone or rehab?’”
The Camden SAP site got Kemble to the top of a waiting list for a methadone clinic. They work with a network of health care and rehab providers to get clients treatment. The site also recently started Narcan training and handing out kits. “Just today my mother overdosed and if we didn’t have the Narcan shots, who knows if she would be here right now,” Kemble said.
Health officials are pushing the Legislature to pass a bill establishing grants that will fund these syringe access programs, or SAP. Chavis says they need $150,000 a year to run a SAP adequately, but receive just $30,000 through a federally funded state program.
The system is confidential, judgement free and open to all. Donations are accepted.