ELLSWORTH – When George Russell signed on two years ago as executive director of the Down East AIDS Network, the nonprofit already had been cleared for a needle exchange program.
“DEAN was actually one of the first agencies to receive [state] certification, but it was just sitting in a box when I got here,” Russell said Friday.
It’s not in a box anymore.
The agency announced this week that it will be offering needle exchange from its offices in Ellsworth, becoming just the third community in eastern Maine to participate in the service.
DEAN has a sister site in Washington County that has been facilitating needle exchanges for the past 10 months.The Eastern Maine AIDS Network in Bangor has participated in needle exchange since 2002.”Our goal is simple: We want to get the contaminated needles off the street,” Russell said.
Needle exchange allows anyone to bring in used needles to be exchanged for new ones. The program, which is free and confidential, has been controversial in the past, but it’s one of the best intervention options to stop the spread of HIV and AIDS, Russell said.
“People are less inclined to throw away a needle on the street if they know it can be exchanged for a clean one,” he said, pointing out that HIV can survive for four weeks in a contaminated syringe.
DEAN’s program is funded primarily through a grant from Maine Community AIDS Partnership, a statewide program.
All needle exchange programs also have to be approved by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
“From our program, it’s one of the most effective tools in HIV prevention,” said James Markiewicz, program manager for the HIV, STD and viral hepatitis program at the MCDC. “Stopping the sharing of needles and providing folks with access to clean needles is one of the simplest things we can do.”
About 1,500 people in Maine are infected with HIV or AIDS, according to estimates by the MCDC. While that number is low compared with other states, it doesn’t mean that the disease has vanished, Russell said.
“If people believe that the crisis is over or that they have all the information they need, they’re wrong,” he said.
The most common ways to spread the disease are through unprotected sex and sharing needles. Men who have sex with men and injected-drug users are still the highest-risk groups for HIV and AIDS, but heterosexual women who have contact with at-risk partners are contracting the disease more frequently, Russell said.
What’s more, he said, “folks who are newly diagnosed with HIV progress very rapidly to AIDS status. That tells us that there are people out there who have been infected for a long time and don’t know it.”
Needle exchange, which was approved by the state Legislature in 1997, has generated some concerns that it condones injected-drug use. Some say it even increases drug use.
“I think people are going to have a knee-jerk reaction, but I can’t say that I have concerns,” Ellsworth police Lt. Harold Page said. “I don’t think it will create more drug use, and we already know that there is a huge drug problem [in Hancock County].”
Program coordinator Jamie Cotnoir said the Eastern Maine AIDS Network in Bangor program now has nearly 200 clients.
“Our clients are really just grateful to have such a service,” she said. “We definitely had a slow start with building trust, but word of mouth has helped tremendously. People realize that police officers aren’t waiting in the parking lot to bust them.”