Heroin Addiction and HIV infection – Dirty needles and a place for harm reduction

Co-authored by: Jamie Felzer

Many people today know about the dangers and risky behaviors (sharing needles, unsafe sex, and mother-to-child transmission) that can increase the risk for HIV/AIDS infection. The question lies in whether or not they are able to take appropriate actions to prevent contracting the disease themselves.

Heroin addiction, dirty needled, and HIV infection

Many heroin addicts, especially those that are homeless or extremely poor, will use whatever heroin they can get, regardless of the risk it puts them in.  A study done in a San Francisco park frequented by almost 3000 IV drug users found that in times of heroin withdrawals, addicts would use dirty  needles, sometimes with visible traces of blood still on them. The need to overcome their withdrawal was more important to them than worrying about the risk of contracting HIV or any of the other countless diseases that can be contracted from such use.

Many of the users surveyed were poor and sometimes didn’t even have enough money to buy their own supply of heroin so they often pooled together what they had with others. They all shared the heroin, cooker and needle to get a fix for the time being.

Regardless of the consequences of HIV contraction, users needed their heroin.

In this community many of the users knew about the risks of sharing needles and were well aware of recommendations that they not share needles or bleach them.  The users actually found health outreach workers slogans patronizing because although they would have  loved not to have to worry about sharing needles, often the more imminent need is getting that fix or suffer being extremely sick from withdrawals.  Given the relatively rare harm-reduction sources available, they were able to use the clean needles given out by some health organizations but at other times had to be resourceful and use what they had regardless of the possible consequences.

There are 1.2 million people living with HIV in the US right now out of a 33.2 million total in the world. 2.5 million people recently acquired the disease and 18% of those new infections were from injection drug users (IDU).  HIV/AIDS is a preventable disease. If we allow users to have easier access to clean needles, we can help decrease the number of IDU infections. If you aren’t sure what your status is, get tested! HIV Testing

Here’s a great resource for finding needle exchanges operating in the U.S. : NASEN

Citation:

Social Misery and the Sanctions of Substance Abuse: Confronting HIV Risk among Homeless Heroin Addicts in San Francisco. Philippe Bourgois; Mark Lettiere; James Quesada. Social Problems, Vol. 44, No. 2  (May, 1997), pp. 155-173. University of California Press on behalf of the Society for the Study of Social Problems.

UNAIDS Website

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