Holyoke has become the second city in Western Massachusetts to offer needle exchange as a way to reduce infectious disease among drug users.
Holyoke has the third highest rate of HIV infection in the state, behind Springfield and Boston. And health officials say one third of new HIV cases in Holyoke come from shared drug needles — which is almost three times the state average. Still, it’s taken years of advocacy to get unanimous approval from the board of health to start a needle exchange program — this time with support from new mayor Alex Morse and police chief James Neiswanger. While opponents of needle exchange say providing clean needles condones illegal drug use, supporters say it’s been proven to reduce rates of HIV and Hepatitis c. Leslie Laurie is head of Tapestry Health, a health organization that’s been contracted to run the Holyoke needle exchange program. She says she’s hoping to duplicate the success of a similar program in Northampton, where 40 percent of participants go onto get drug abuse treatment.
Laurie says replacing needles also reduces the public’s risk of coming across a dirty needle in a park or trash area…. Meanwhile, Western Massachusetts aids activists say they hope Holyoke’s example will help build the political will to launch a needle exchange program in Springfield, which currently has the fastest-growing rate of new infections in the state.