Support Wanes As Indiana County Officials Stall On Syringe Exchange

Jul 11, 2017

Tippecanoe County, Indiana received state approval for a syringe exchange in late 2016, after county health officials raised the alarm about fast-rising rates of Hepatitis C, spread by sharing needles for injection drugs. As of July 2017, it has yet to open its doors.

Eight Indiana counties have started syringe exchanges to prevent the spread of hepatitis C and the HIV since E the outbreak in Scott County in 2015. Tippecanoe County would be the ninth if it opens, but support for the program appears to be waning.

West Lafayette Mayor John Dennis initially welcomed the program. Last December he told WBAA’s Stan Jastrzebski “it’s incumbent on us as humans to look after each other.”

However, in an interview with Jastrzebski last week, Dennis’ initial support seemed somewhat diminished.

“Nobody’s arguing there isn’t a need,” Dennis said, but “I think the presumption is, if you plant it, it’s going to bring evil.”

Dennis,a former police officer, raised concerns about a potential syringe exchange sending mixed messages to law enforcement and increasing crime, a concern he had dismissed in his interview with WBAA in December.

“[Attracting more crime] is a distinct possibility,” Dennis said last winter. “But you also share at least some of the burden of ‘what if not? If not this, what?’”

Seven months later, Dennis is more wary.

“I don’t know what the data says, I don’t know if there’s been anybody who’s had enough time to monitor needle exchange programs,” Dennis said, referring to the perceived connection between drug use and needle exchanges. 

Several studies, cited often by State Health Commissioner Jerome Adams in state legislative hearings, have shown there is not a significant correlation between crime rates and needle exchange implementation.

Lafayette’s Mayor, Tony Roswarski, who also has a law enforcement background, has been a more fervent opponent of the syringe program from its inception.

The state approved the county’s request for a syringe services program late in 2016.

While the health department has received grant money to pay for the exchange, neither one of the two largest cities in the county are enthusiastic to house it, making it more likely it will be housed in a mobile unit that will change location.

But a mobile unit still needs to park somewhere, said Dennis. “How do you validate [where to locate it] without taking a wild guess?”

The Tippecanoe County Health Department’s annual report shows a fourfold increase in Hepatitis C cases since 2011,  with total cases in 2016 hovering near 700.  “According to the Indiana State Department of Health, to decrease the spread of Hepatitis C, a harm reduction program is required immediately,” the report reads.

There are currently close to 3,000 people enrolled in eight syringe services programs across the state.

This story is a collaborative between Side Effects Public Media and WBAA News.