Camden Syringe Exchange Program Helps Intravenous Drug Users

By Briana Vannozzi

“It’s not going to stop any addicts from using but what it’s going to do is help addicts not get diseases, it’s going to help addicts get tested, ” said Garry Kemble.

We found Kemble and his wife Paige Panarello on a visit to Camden’s syringe exchange program. The two are recovering heroin users. 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 overdose a lot more people getting tested,” Kemble said.

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. Camden served nearly 5,000 new clients last year and handed out almost 200,000 needles.

“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 IDUs by 70 percent,” said Martha Chavis, executive director of the Camden Area Health Education Center.

Clients can drop off dirty needles, too. Camden sees two out of every three needles handed out returned.

“We have heard from law enforcement and the community at large that children and everyone else are finding fewer needles on the ground because people are returning the needles,” Chavis said.

Health officials are pushing the Legislature to pass a bill establishing grants that will fund these syringe access programs, or SAP. Camden’s executive director for the area health education center says they need $150,000 a year to run a SAP adequately, but receive just $30,000 through a federally funded state program.

“We had to reduce the number of needles that we hand out to clients from 20 to 10 at a time because we don’t have the kind of funding to make sure that they can have an adequate number of needles,” Chavis said.

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 other STIs, to see if they have Hepatitis C, make sure we can provide them information in terms of not overdosing and all of that matters. So it is a cost savings that is priceless,” Chavis said.

“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,” Panarello said.

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 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.

The system is confidential, judgement free and open to all.