Canton needle exchange program is desperate for grant money to buy syringes

CANTON, Ohio - A year ago the Canton City Health Department launched a needle exchange program, called SWAP, but that program is now facing an uncertain future because of funding issues.

SWAP was founded using amoney they received from the AIDS Health Care Foundation, using the funds to buy needles, Narcan kits and other supplies.

But that money has now run out.

"As a director of the program, it's very concerning," said Diane Thompson, of the Canton Health Department. "We're trying to be very intentional about how we're distributing the needles so that we're not over distributing."

Since the program launched in June 2017, they've provided about 60,000 clean needles and have received about 47,000 in return. Also in that year's time, they've seen about 230 patients. 

The directors of the program said the first year went better than they expected, so that's why they're worried it could vanish if they don't find more funding. 

"We're trying to make applications to grants all the time," Thompson said. "Because we believe this program is integral to our community. It's about making sure everybody is living healthful lifestyles." 

Thompson and her co-director Amanda Archer said the point of the needle exchange program is to reduce blood-borne pathogens transmissions, like HIV and Hepatitis C.

"It's way cheaper to give people who inject drugs syringes than it is to treat infectious infections," Archer, an epidemiologist with the department, said. "One case of Hepatitis C is about $95,000."

SWAP recently partnered with nonprofit OhioCAN. They hope by partnering with a nonprofit group they can qualify for grants they haven't been able to in the past.

According to law, the health department can't spend federal dollars on needles. However, that money can be used for any other supply they use for the program. This is a roadblock Archer said is frustrating. 

"It's cheaper to pay for syringes and buy them and hand them out than it is to treat once case of Hepatitis C, so it's frustrating that we know this," Archer said. "We have a program that can distribute needles to the high-risk population and we don't have the funding to support that."

However, nonprofits are not exempt from using federal funding to buy needles. Thompson is hopeful they can use grants they win and use that money to buy more syringes, a fundamental supply for SWAP.

"We're trying to make applications to grants all the time," Thompson said. 

In addition to handling out clean needles, SWAP provides resources to detox and rehab centers, vaccinations and Naloxone training. 

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