Palmer Installs First State-Funded Used Needle Box in Alaska
PALMER — This month, a shiny blue receptacle that looks like a mailbox was installed in an alley behind Mat-Su Urgent Care in Palmer, across from the local fire department.
The unassuming box marks a major milestone in a long campaign to address the public health risks posed by used hypodermic needles: it is the first state-funded used needle disposal site in Alaska.
Defenders say their hope is that it will help tackle an epidemic of used needles that have long littered parks, playgrounds and other public spaces around the state, and in Mat-Su in particular.
Used syringes pose a significant public health risk, especially given the potency of fentanyl, an opioid that can be deadly in extremely small amounts and which has pushed Alaska’s overdose rate to one of the highest in the nation. .
“Two milligrams of fentanyl is a fatal overdose. So if someone takes a syringe, it could be a life-threatening situation,” said Michael Carson, president of the Mat-Su Opioid Task Force and vice president of youth shelter and nonprofit MyHouse in Wasilla. .
Although used needles are a problem everywhere, statewide options for safe needle disposal are limited, said Venus Woods, director of HIV prevention and education at Alaskan Aids. Assistance Association (also known as Four A’s) based in Anchorage.
In Fairbanks and Juneau, residents can contact their local public works divisions for instructions and resources for safely disposing of needles, including free pick-ups. Four A’s has a needle service program that is active in Anchorage and Mat-Su.
As part of the Four A program, people can contact the nonprofit organization to arrange a time to bring in their used syringes and receive new syringes and other supplies, including stoves, cottons, tourniquets and alcohol swabs.
[Alaska’s fatal overdoses surged last year, a spike driven by fentanyl]
Homer also has a safe needle program called The Exchange, which is free and confidential. As part of this program, users can return used needles and receive new ones during fortnightly exchanges.
Needle exchange programs are an important public health tool because they can help prevent the spread of infectious and sometimes deadly diseases, including HIV and hepatitis C, as well as staph infections, Woods said.
Exchanges are criticized by some for enabling drug use or increased abuse, but the Centers for Disease Control found that three decades of research have shown comprehensive programs to be “safe, effective, and economical, n do not increase illegal drug use or crime, and play an important role in reducing the transmission of viral hepatitis, HIV and other infections.
Needle drop boxes are a less politically charged option to solve the problem.
Until now, no physical drop-off point for used syringes existed in the state.
The first from Alaska came to Palmer because of a dedicated former city official.
“What I’ve noticed, and a lot of other people have noticed as well, is that there’s a lot of syringes on the floor,” said Imran Chaudhry, a former acting member of the Palmer City Council, when asked how the project came about. “It’s obviously become a very big health issue.”
Chaudhry, who grew up in Palmer, only served on the board for a few months in 2019. During that short time, he and others began researching possible solutions, including a safe option for users to get rid of needles.
Chaudhry worked with a policy director in Portland, Oregon, who had implemented what appeared to be a successful initiative in his city: a mailbox-like disposal box where people could safely dispose of used syringes.
He got a copy of the plan Portland used, and Palmer city leaders agreed it sounded like a good idea. When the pandemic hit, the city balked at most non-COVID-19 health costs, but local resident Joe Warren agreed to donate the initial $2,500 costs to get the project started, Chaudhry said. .
The letterbox-shaped disposal site was finally installed this month, from donated scrap welded together.
The community response so far has been encouraging, Chaudhry said recently. He wants to let people know that the disposal site is operational. He is also working with other communities in the state to see the establishment of additional disposal sites there as well.
Woods, who has praised the drop box program, said she hopes that in addition to expanded access to needle disposal around Alaska, more sites will start offering exchanges. of needles for safe supplies.
“I think from a public health perspective, if you’re incorporating needle disposal, why not go a step further and incorporate the distribution of supplies to people who use them?” she says.