Sara (alias) is a 35-year-old woman attending school for a Master’s in Public Health, but she has an unusual side job: running an underground syringe exchange program (SEP) in North Carolina. SEPs provide sterile syringes to drug users, diabetics, transgender people and any individual who uses syringes for medical issues, in exchange for used syringes which may potentially be contaminated with HIV or hepatitis. Sara was recently jailed for possession of a syringe inside a biohazard container, which she'd collected from a drug user in order to dispose of it safely. North Carolina laws against syringe possession make even a good act such as cleaning dirty needles out of our communities illegal. But Sara continues to put herself at risk to protect others from diseases that can be transferred from used syringes, such as HIV and hepatitis C.
“When I was 28 I got an MRSA staph infection from re-using my own syringes,” says Sara. “I was a heroin addict at the time, so I was afraid to see a doctor. By the time I checked into the hospital the infection was pretty bad. The doctors told me I had hepatitis C and a staph infection, but they didn’t explain what that meant. I was terrified and confused.”
As Sara later learned, hepatitis C is an inflammation of the liver transmitted through blood contact, such as shared syringes, crack/meth pipes, cookers, drug filters, sex, tattoos, piercings or shared toiletries. Sara was lucky; she was treated with interferon drugs and the virus went into remission after a year of treatment. Many people however, cannot get treated for hepatitis C due to the cost of treatment, not being able to deal with the treatment’s side effects, or not responding to the treatment, which may lead to liver cancer, liver failure and death. This is a serious problem, since according to the world hepatitis alliance, 1 in 12 people has hepatitis B or C.
In 2008 Sara connected with the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition (www.nchrc.net) and learned to help protect herself and others from hepatitis C by using sterile drug equipment and condoms. Within NCHRC, Sara found people who cared about her as a person rather than a criminal, and didn’t force her to quit her addiction before she was ready. Sara decided to operate an underground SEP to help protect others against blood borne diseases.
“There’s also a lot of misinformation about hepatitis C,” says Sara. “People think that if they sleep with someone, they might as well shoot with that person too. They don’t realize that hepatitis C is spread through more easily through shared syringes and injection supplies than through sex.”
Through the SEP, Sara provides sterile syringes, cookers, cottons, tourniquets, sterile water and bleach kits to injection users, as well as spark plugs to crack smokers to put on top of their pipes to prevent blood exposures. As HIV and hepatitis can be spread through re-using any drug equipment, she teaches drug users use new equipment for each drug-using even or to sterilize the equipment they use, not just syringes. This is because hepatitis and HIV can live in drug cookers, drug filters (such as cotton), shared sterile water and tourniquets. Sara connects with new clients through word of mouth and a network of drug dealers and she gives sterile equipment and information to current drug users. She even saves lives by providing drug users with naloxone, a drug that blocks opiates to the brain and stops drug overdose. This is important in North Carolina since drug overdose is the number four killer of people aged 18-49.
It’s dangerous to run a syringe exchange program in North Carolina,” says Sara, “but I do it because I want to help others avoid the fear and confusion I experienced in the hospital and prevent them from getting exposed to life threatening diseases.”
BlueNC is dedicated to making North Carolina a more progressive and prosperous state. If your intention is to disrupt this effort, please find somewhere else to express your opinions.