Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe signed legislation this week that legalizes syringe access programs in the state. Virginia has been experiencing significant increases in opioid overdose, opioid misuse, injection drug use, and rates of HIV and hepatitis C infection. These concerning trends led Virginia’s health commissioner Dr. Marissa Levine and Governor Terry McAuliffe to declare the state’s opioid addiction crisis a public health emergency late last year.
“Increasing access to sterile syringes is essential to reducing rates of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C transmission,” said Kaitlyn Boecker, Policy Coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance. “Establishing syringe access programs will save thousands of lives in Virginia by preventing the spread of HIV and other preventable diseases.”
Here are some quick facts about Virginia’s new law and syringe access programs:
- The legislation (HB 2317) authored by Delegate John M. O’Bannon III (R – House District 73) authorizes the Commissioner of Health to establish and operate syringe programs during a declared public health emergency. The objectives of these programs are to reduce the spread of HIV, viral hepatitis, and other blood-borne diseases in Virginia, including through the accidental transmission of needle stick injuries to law enforcement and other first responders, and to provide information to individuals who inject drugs regarding addiction treatment services. These programs will be located in at-risk communities, in accordance with criteria established by the Department of Health. The legislation takes effect on July 1st.
- Syringe access programs have a proven, decades-long track record of preventing the spread of infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C, in addition to reducing problematic drug use by connecting people who inject drugs with testing, health care and treatment.
- Many jurisdictions adjacent to Virginia already have successful syringe services programs, including North Carolina, West Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C.
- With the new law, Virginia will join a growing number of states that recently passed syringe access reforms, including Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, and Maryland. Due to recent Congressional action to modify the decades-long ban on federal funding for syringe access programs, these newly expanded programs will be able to seek federal support for their work.
- By implementing syringe programs now, Virginia may be able to avoid public health crises like the 2015 HIV outbreak in Scott County, Indiana, in which a lack of access to harm reduction resources like syringe access contributed to over 200 new cases of HIV (whereas Scott County typically only saw 5 HIV cases per year).
- An analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that eight Virginia counties (Buchanan, Dickenson, Russell, Lee, Wise, Tazewell, Patrick and Wythe) are at risk of an outbreak similar to Scott County, Indiana.
- Virginia already has seen a spike in hepatitis C cases: in 2014, more than 6,600 cases were reported to the Virginia Department of Health and in 2015 more than 8,000 cases were reported. This significant rise in blood borne pathogens could signal a spike in HIV on the horizon as well.
“Thanks to the dedication of Virginia’s Health Commissioner, Governor McAuliffe and the sponsor of the syringe measure, Del. John O’Bannon, Virginia has taken a huge step toward preventing further harms from the opioid and heroin crisis,” added Boecker. “We hope this is just the beginning of broader efforts in Virginia to reduce preventable harms caused by outdated drug laws and drug misuse.”