“Get the Point” is the title of a new brochure put out by the Clallam County Public Health Department. The purpose is to warn the public about the dangers of handling hypodermic needles, especially those attached to syringes and found in odd places like trails, park benches and restrooms. Valuable information to know since the problem’s not going away.
We are advised to wear gloves, pick up the syringe by the plunger end and drop it into a plastic bottle, preferably the 2-liter kind, put the cap tightly on the bottle, remove our gloves and wash our hands immediately.
We’re not done until we label the bottle in big letters with a warning, “syringes – don’t recycle” and drop it in the trash. Of course, the point of “Get the Point” is not to get the point and try to prevent anyone else from getting it.
So called “needle sticks” occur when a person such as a health care worker, sanitation worker, a walker traveling a trail in open shoes or a child playing on the beach is accidentally stuck by a dirty needle. Needle sticks are a quick and efficient way of transmitting a disease carried in the blood. Think HIV virus or Hepatitis C.
You’ve probably noticed the bright red used needle containers being placed in public restrooms that provide another safe home for used needles.
Public health departments across the nation, including our own, have been working to prevent the spread of disease from the reuse of dirty needles or accidental sticks through administering a free syringe exchange through which intravenous drug users exchange dirty needles for sterile needles — not that all users participate, so we must learn how to dispose of errant needles.
Pointed and poignant statistics
The Clallam County Health Department is on track this year to exchange over 300,000 needles by the end of 2015. That’s over 800 needles a day or using the figure 865 reported in the Peninsula Daily News as the number of clients that used the exchange in 2014, it’s about a needle a day per client. According to the client reports, one-half of the needles are used to inject heroin and one-half are used to inject methamphetamine.
We don’t know the numbers for those that don’t use the exchange but we do know drug abuse and addiction is a major public health and people problem in our community. Every needle is the day in the life of someone in our community who is at risk of harming self or others.
In the past decade, the rate of drug-related hospitalizations has increased with Clallam County holding a significant lead over our sister counties on the peninsula. In the years 2005-2009, Clallam County ranked next to last in the state for opiate overdose hospitalizations. In 2013, Clallam County had an overdose death rate of 29.0 per 100,000 people at nearly twice the state’s rate of 14.9.
This alarming statistic brings me to a new measure intended to prevent death from overdoes; that is access to the antidote naloxone which stops the effects of a heroin overdose if given soon enough.
Emergency services are now carrying naloxone. In addition, the Health Department received through a grant 100 doses of prefilled, single-use auto-injectors (a value of $40,000) which they intend to offer needle exchange clients. The staff hopes to engage the client in a conversation about treatment.
Getting to the point
Under all the sterile statistics of numbers of needles and lives lost or saved are the numbers of lives spending their days and nights satisfying their addiction.
Has Public Health or funders of same given up their role in primary prevention, stopping the addiction at the onset or secondary prevention, assuring early intervention and treatment?
Is providing sterile needles all we can do? Is providing 9-1-1 EMTs with the antidote to death all we can do? Of course, these are valuable measures.
We’ve saved lives and engaged in conversations but then where can we send them for sustained treatment?
Our county’s mental health system is so overburdened, understaffed and underfunded that it’s practically closed for business.
There are too many incidents of people already seeking mental health help being unable to get help to believe it will be there in time for the person living out his/her existence in the cocoon of drug-seeking, sterile needles and death-defying antidotes.
Maybe that’s why we focus on needles, but we all know that the fallout from drug addiction is more than needles in the street or on the toilet; it’s pointless lives that eventually come to rest heavily on the health and integrity of a community.
Can we afford to miss the point?
Bertha D. Cooper is retired from a 40-plus year career as a health care administrator focusing on the delivery system as a whole. She still does occasional consulting. She is a featured columnist at the Sequim Gazette. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.