Ten years ago, New Jersey launched a pilot program that allowed drug users to get sterile syringes at five centers in Atlantic City, Camden, Newark, Jersey City and Paterson.

As funding for the program has dwindled, those centers are handing out less and less clean needles because they can’t afford to buy them.

“We are constantly at risk for having little to no money for needles at our needle exchange site. We have gone from giving 20 needles per person twice a week down to 10 needles per person twice a week,” said Martha Chavis, executive director of the Camden Area Health Education Center.

She said things have gotten so bad lately that “we’re going to have to make a decision round about November or December, do we reduce the number of needles even more?”

Last week Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a measure that would have provided more funding for needle exchange programs, allowing them to expand. However advocates who support these programs say they’re hoping Christie will propose minor changes to the legislation and sign it into law.

Chavis explained only AIDS United, which partners with the Elton John Foundation, and the MAC Aids Fund have supplied significant donations in the past. The growing number of needle exchange programs across the country has reduced the amount of funding that’s available.

Why is this program so important?

“If enough clean needles aren’t available, the danger is that it may be the transmission of HIV, and even more so, hepatitis C,” she said. “We definitely want to continue with the impact that we have had with that program, which was the reduction of HIV transmission.”

Chavis noted the needle exchange program has been very effective.

“Over the past eight to nine years we’ve reduced HIV transmission through needles by 70 percent,” she said

Georgette Watson, chief operations officer for the south Jersey AIDS alliance, said funding for syringes is also beginning to be a problem for her organization.

“We actually had to cut back on the supplies we give out. Last year we gave out over 389,000 syringes, but this year that total has been cut by 25 percent,” she said.

Watson pointed out if a drug addict keeps using the same needle, “they can cause infection in themselves, so it’s really a harm reduction approach that we take.”

She said if more drug users get infected with HIV, the cost of treating them will skyrocket.

“It costs about $618,000 to take care of one person who is HIV positive in their lifetime, but one syringe costs 10 cents,” said Watson.

She also noted if needle syringe centers are forced to close down, people will migrate to the ones that are still open.

“Right now at this point we’re just looking at reducing the services, but eventually we could run out of syringes,” she said

Chavis said “we’re hoping the state Health Department will be able to identify funds for the purchase of syringes, similar to what is happening in New York state.”

She stressed her organization, in addition to helping prevent HIV infections and hepatitis C, also offers drug use education, getting people referred to drug rehab programs throughout the state, and provides other health testing, screening and counseling.

The Well of Hope needle exchange program in Paterson has run out of sterile syringes and is no longer offering them to clients.

Contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com

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