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Needle Exchanges Urged as More Iowans Inject Heroin

Joyce Russell/IPR
Sarah Ziegenhorn, Iowa Harm Reduction Coalition

A legislative committee studying Iowa’s opioid epidemic heard testimony today on a serious side effect of increased heroin use in the state.   

Addicts share needles to shoot heroin, and public health experts say that has contributed to a large increase in hepatitis C cases in Iowa. 

Sarah Ziegenhorn with the Iowa Harm Reduction Coalition told lawmakers Iowa should join other states 

It seems like the tide is sort of shifting. -Sarah Ziegenhorn, Iowa Harm Reduction Coalition

and approve needle exchange programs.   

“There are 36 states that currently operate syringe exchange programs,” Ziegenhorn said.  “There are 19 that have had to go about the process the way that Iowa will have to go about the process to create  them and that is to modify our existing drug paraphernalia laws.”

A study by the Iowa Department of Public Health concludes that over the last four years, nearly 60 percent of Iowans seeking treatment for opioid abuse use needles to inject heroin.      

IDPH reports a 200 percent increase in hepatitis C  in Iowa over the past 16 years.

"We have about 2200 people per year getting a diagnosis of hepatitis C now,” said IDPH Bureau Chief Randy Mayer.   “That makes it third on our list of reportable infectious diseases in the state."

Mayer says many more are likely infected but not diagnosed.

Ziegenhorn says other states have responded to similar outbreaks.

“Over four years, 16 states with Republican governors or Republican legislators passed needle exchange bills statewide,” Ziegenhorn said.  “And they did it because they were facing crises similar to our own with unprecedented levels of hep C  infection and opioid crises.”

Ziegenhorn cites a national study showing more opioid addicts are choosing heroin first, rather than initially becoming hooked on prescription painkillers.   

“The tide is shifting,” Ziegenhorn said.