By ANDY GARDNER
MASSENA -- Citing 61 reports of hypodermic syringes being found disposed in public since January 2013, village police Chief Timmy Currier is researching what it would take to being a needle exchange program to Massena.
"Recognizing that this program brings with it controversy, it is important that we understand that the main idea behind this program is to reduce the spread of disease," Currier said. "Not just amongst illegal drug users, but throughout all our citizenry."
Currier released a statement last month saying that as of April 28, police had fielded 11 instances of publicly discarded needles that month alone. The syringes, many of which are believed to have come from intravenous (IV) drug users, can transmit blood-borne pathogens such as HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C.
According to Avert, an international HIV/AIDS advocacy group, one in five IV drug users worldwide is infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
"A study of HIV among [people who inject drugs] in New York (City) between 1990 and 2001, found that HIV prevalence fell from 54 percent to 13 percent following the introduction of needle exchange programs," Avert says on its website, citing a 2005 study.
Avert’s webpage on needle exchange programs can be found here.
"Personally, I am on the fence about this program," Currier said. "Some would argue it's contributing to the drug problem … I don't know if that's true or not."
Currier said he is trying to network with local pharmacies and Massena Memorial Hospital, possibly getting in on the state Department of Health's Expanded Syringe Access Program (ESAP).
"Does the law allow us to do (a needle exchange program) and if we are allowed, why aren't we?" Currier said, adding that he wants to bring awareness of Massena's drug and syringe-disposal issues to elected officials at the state level.
"How can we move quickly to resolve this? If the law doesn't allow for it, I'm going to urge them to do so," Currier said. "It's all about preventing used syringes from being disposed around town."
Right now, MMH takes dirty needles, but doesn't exchange them. Kinney's and Walgreens will sell syringes to those 18 years of age or older without a prescription, but Rite Aid does not, Currier said. Currier noted that IV drug users may be reluctant to turn in their needles at a treatment facility or an exchange site they believe is being watched by law enforcement.
He said he hopes to have answers from the hospital and pharmacies later this week.
Currier said he doesn't know of any citizens being stuck with improperly disposed needles and hasn't heard figures, scientific or anecdotal, of HIV and hepatitis rates in Massena. He said a few years ago, there was an incident where a village police officer was stuck while searching a person. There was another incident around the same time where a Department of Public Works garbage collector was stuck with a needle in a garbage bag.
Currier says education is a big part of the long-term plan.
"How can we reduce the risk … for private garbage haulers and public works employees?" Currier said.
He noted that some legitimate IV users need to be informed how to get rid of their sharps, which means not just throwing them on the ground or in the garbage.
The Massena Central School District's Safety Team is preparing presentations to educate children on the danger posed by used needles and what to do if they see one.
The Massena Drug Free Coalition is organizing sweeps of parks throughout town for used syringes on Saturday morning. Volunteers will spot the sharps and trained professionals will dispose of them. Volunteers will meet at the Chamber of Commerce on Church Street at 10 a.m. and will receive safety training before being sent out.
Currier said anyone who sees a dirty needle in public should call the village police at 769-3577. Those finding syringes shouldn't touch them, police are trained in their safe disposal.