Free syringe program grows to include a mobile health unit

Published: Dec. 11, 2017 at 2:25 PM AKST
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A man sat on a small leather chair, carefully putting used syringes inside a green soda bottle.

One needle, then four more, until the bottle slowly filled to the top.

Then he pulled out a second bottle.

The syringe exchange, run by the Alaskan AIDS Assistance Association, or Four A's, is located on Fireweed Lane inside a small building with several non-profits.

"When you're seeing 100 to 150 new clients a month, we can't keep up with demands," said Heather Davis, the executive director of the organization.

Last month, the group requested -- and was granted -- $50,000 from the Anchorage Assembly to continue to fund the syringe program and to create a mobile health unit.

"The budget proposal that we've put forward to the assembly is to run a mobile health unit that would operate five days a week," Davis said, "four days a week in Anchorage and one day in Mat-Su."

On a recent afternoon, a crew from Channel 2 tried to speak with some of the people coming to Four A's for new needles.

One woman, who asked that we not identify her, was picking up 50 needles, alcohol swabs and a tourniquet for her husband, whom she says has been addicted to opioids for two years.

"I would rather him be open and honest with me about what he's going through instead of trying to hide it," the woman said, "and at the very least we can make sure we have services like (Four A's) that he can go to, to make sure he's not contracting diseases by using street paraphernalia."

As the opioid epidemic has continued to grow in Alaska, Four A's has taken the lead in the syringe exchange program in an attempt to keep HIV and other diseases at bay.

"You could have an outbreak on your hands," Matt Allen, HIV prevention and education coordinator for Four A's, said when asked what would happen if the syringe program didn't exist.

Four A's says that in the last fiscal year, which ended in July, more than 600,000 syringes were given out.

Davis says when the problems with opioids began a few years ago, there wasn't as much support for the syringe program as there is now.

"They're trying to better their situations," Allen said about the people coming in for syringes, "even if it's just getting clean supplies."

Over the course of an hour, about 10 to 15 people came in for new supplies. Four A's said it was a slow day. Only the one woman who came in for new syringes for her husband agreed to be interviewed. Allen said he wasn't surprised most people declined an interview because people are very private about their drug use.

The woman whose husband is addicted to opioids has been able to keep a good job but she'd still like him to stop.

"I worry every day, from day to day. I don't know if something is going to happen to him or if he's going to overdose, or if he's going to get in trouble with the law. It's hard to tell from day to day what's going to happen."