Richmond’s newest campaign to offer intravenous drug users safer resources and greater care quietly kicked off this week, on Monday night in the Museum District. Led by Health Brigade, the group began its Comprehensive Harm Reduction Program, which includes a needle exchange program — the second of its kind in Virginia so far.
Established in 1970 as Virginia’s first free clinic, Health Brigade (originally Fan Free Clinic) will now provide drug users with clean equipment to ensure that fatal diseases transmitted through the blood aren’t spread. Besides this service, Health Brigade will also be collecting and disposing of used needles, referring drug users to substance use treatments and testing for HIV and Hepatitis C, among other services. Health Brigade’s needle exchange program joins 185 similar programs, operating in 38 states across the US.
The treatment and prevention of HIV and Hepatitis C was a focal point of Health Brigade’s recent news release. Noting the opioid crisis that “continues to impact Richmond metro region, and the State of Virginia,” the release stressed the importance of the program — not just for the safety of drug users, but “for first responders, law enforcement, and community members.”
Hepatitis C infections in Virginia have risen to nearly 11,500 cases, an increase of almost 56 percent since 2013, according to data released by the Virginia Department of Health in 2017. It was this rise in infection that led to Virginia’s first needle exchange program being set up in Wise County this summer, after legislation authorizing the creation of these programs was approved in the General Assembly last year.
To date, only 55 localities in the Commonwealth are eligible to apply, thanks in part to resistance by state law enforcement agencies, who serve a critical role in the application process.
Harm reduction programs have proven to be a boon for the communities they’re introduced in. Contrary to concerns from local law enforcement, data has shown that these programs don’t increase drug usage, but instead increase the possibility of users seeking treatment, in addition to decreasing potential harm for officers from needle stick injuries.
How Richmond’s drug users will ultimately respond to the program remains to be seen, with Health Brigade Communications Coordinator Julie Sulik saying that it’ll be awhile before they’ll be able to share the results of their efforts with the public.