September 5, 2019

CONTACT: Johan Marulanda /


September 5, 2019 WASHINGTON D.C. | Recent increases in Hepatitis C (HCV) and HIV cases related to opioid misuse has led to increased support for harm reduction efforts, including syringe services programs. “Cases of HCV increased three-and-a-half times from 2010-2016, primarily due to an increase in injection drug use and lack of access to sterile syringes,” write health policy experts in a new brief Community Experience Offers Lessons for Expanding Access to Syringe Services Programs.

“Addressing the health needs of persons who inject drugs (PWID) is essential to reducing the high rates of HCV infection in the U.S. and ultimately achieving elimination of the disease,” says Sonia Canzater, co-author of the brief, “SSPs provide a non-judgmental environment where PWID can get services they need to protect their health and get on a path toward treating their substance use disorder.”

SSP services can be helpful at both preventing infection, as well as reducing health care costs. “SSPs can decrease risk of acquiring HCV by as much as 80%, [and] a $1 syringe can prevent an HCV infection that could cost over $205,000 in lifetime health care costs”, explain authors Sonia Canzater and Jeffrey S. Crowley. SSP services often go beyond sterile syringe distribution and can include: naloxone distribution (an opioid overdose antidote), wound care, condoms, infectious disease screening, outreach and peer education, referrals to substance use disorder treatment, and medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for substance use disorder.

“While there is consensus in the public health community that syringe services programs are essential to drug user health and to prevent the spread of blood borne disease, obstacles stand in the way of expanding syringe service programs in areas of greatest need,” says Regina LaBelle, former Chief of Staff of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy under President Obama and O’Neill Institute Director of Addiction and Public Policy. “This document provides communities and policymakers with information they can use to build needed support for these vital programs.” (LaBelle was not directly involved in this project or the preparation of this brief.)

Despite the evidence of their effectiveness, SSPs have been met with resistance. Some communities fear that SSPs enables drug use and may lead to more instances of public drug use, an increase in needles on streets, playgrounds, and public parks. The report highlights the importance of community partnerships to address concerns and quickly respond as issues arise. The brief also highlights the mismatch of needs and services, like in West Virginia where a new cluster of 74 HIV cases, mainly among PWID, was reported just this week. West Virginia is a state highlighted in the brief where SSPs have been established and serving large numbers of people only to be eliminated.

This project is supported by a grant from Gilead Sciences, Inc to the Hepatitis Policy Project. Gilead Sciences, Inc. has had no input into the development of or content of this policy brief.

The O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University Law Center is the premier center for health law, scholarship, and policy. Its mission is to contribute to a more powerful and deeper understanding of the multiple ways in which law can be used to improve the public’s health, using objective evidence as a measure. The O’Neill Institute seeks to advance scholarship, science, research, and teaching that will encourage key decision-makers in the public, private, and civil society to employ the law as a positive tool for enabling more people in the United States and throughout the world to lead healthier lives.