Saving Lives with Heroin Needles

One New York woman describes how swapping dirty heroin needles for clean ones, helped get her off drugs for good.

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    NEWSLETTERS

    NBCNewYork

    Last temptation. No pain. Game over. These are just some of the nicknames that adorn packets of heroin in the city. The thumb sized wax-paper baggies can be seen littering the streets of New York City, despite the recent decline in Heroin use.

    Carol Perez is a mother, a new wife, and a counselor. She's also a former user.

    Talking about her experience as an addict, Perez says, “If you hear death wish or no pain you would run from it. But when you’re using, that’s what you want. Even when you hear people have overdosed and died, you’re like where’d they get that from?”

    Just four years ago, Perez’s addictions threatened to undue her. Perez, who used crack cocaine and heroin, says she had no hope until she found what would ultimately become her salvation, the Lower East Side Harm Reduction Center. Here staff works with addicts, offering medical exams, counseling, food, housing -- and clean needles.

    According to the Center for Disease Control, sharing needles greatly increases the spread of diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C amongst drug users. A nightmare, considering officials say, one in four New Yorkers with HIV don't know they have it. The center's director Raquel Algarin puts it this way, whatever you think of the ethics, a clean needle costs one dollar. Treating somebody for life who gets HIV from a shared dirty needle, costs half a million dollars. Algarin says she’s “taking care of people who no one else takes care of”.

    The center gives out about 25,000 new syringes every month. They get back about 21 thousand. You can only imagine how many less cases of Hepatitis C or HIV that could prevent and it's something Perez says saved her life.

    “We offer you so many other things,“ Perez explained to NBCNewYork. "We don’t just offer you a clean needle and say, ‘bye bye go get high have a good day’. That’s not it. I’m living proof.”

    Perez went from about fifteen needles a week, to none. Luckily, during her years as a user, she never contracted an infectious disease.

    Yet, critics of the program have long argued that offering addicts clean needles will not only promote drug use, but also increase the number of discarded syringes on the street. But according to the Center for Disease Control there’s no evidence to support the latter claim. Its research shows that such programs reduce risky behavior -- the use of a dirty needles -- by eighty percent.

    Last December, President Obama lifted a 1988 ban on federal funding of needle exchanges, yet still no federal money goes to the needle swap. In fact, due to New York City’s budget cuts, the Lower East Side Harm Reduction Center will be cutting down on services.

    As for Perez, she breathed a sigh of relief when faced with one of the old reminders of her addiction -- a collection of the seductively stamped packets in which heroin is sold.
     
    "I thought I was still fighting,” Perez exclaimed with a wide grin on her face, “but today, coming in and seeing all these bags in front of me, and having no reaction, no craving, no nothing at all to want to get high, just to want to still continue to help, I am confident that my fight is over and I won.”