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Editorial: Needle exchange programs help save lives and money

It's often said that change is the only constant. One of the most sobering changes confronting Fargo-Moorhead is the explosive growth of the opioid epidemic. Even a few years ago, who would have imagined that Fargo would have a methadone clinic—or that it would have more than 160 regular clients months after opening? Even more grim, who would have thought Cass County would lose 31 of its young people to opioid-related deaths in 2016, and would view as progress a drop in the death toll to 17 a year later?

But that is the reality that we must deal with. Fortunately, the community is dealing with the problem in comprehensive fashion under efforts steered by the Mayors' Blue Ribbon Commission on Addiction. One of its most recent initiatives is the proposed needle exchange program at Fargo Cass Public Health. Some reacted with alarm when news of the proposal broke earlier this month. It's easy to recoil at the idea. Isn't this merely enabling addicts? Others might flinch at the cost, estimated at $130,000 a year, although a grant would help cover the cost.

In fact, needle exchange programs are part of what public health officials call a harm reduction strategy. Drug addicts commonly share needles. Dirty syringes spread diseases that, if unchecked, could quickly escalate into an epidemic. Take Hepatitis C, a liver disease that can be spread by sharing needles. There is no vaccine to protect against Hepatitis disease, caused by a blood-borne virus. Hepatitis C infections are on the rise in Cass County, with 825 cases over the past five years, including 236 last year alone. Hepatitis C can cause cirrhosis, liver cancer or liver failure. It's also an expensive disease to treat—a single case can cost more than $100,000—and an epidemic is not only a serious public health threat, but a financial burden on society.

Although controversial, there is strong evidence supporting needle exchange programs, which also help prevent the spread of other blood-borne diseases, including HIV, the AIDS virus. Addicts who receive needles through an exchange program also are coming into contact with the health system; it's an opportunity to refer them to counseling and other services that could help them kick their habit and improve their health. Think of a needle exchange program as a gateway to help desperate people make better decisions and, if they are willing and able, to make changes that will not only help themselves, but will help society.

Needle exchange programs, by the way, are not new to the community. Fargo-Moorhead Good Neighbor Project, based in Moorhead, has been giving away needles and Naloxone antidote kits since it opened in March 2015. It's also been offering referrals to other services and doing what its volunteers can to help people kick their addiction. Like it or not, we now live in a world where methadone clinics and needle exchange programs are vital public health services.

The Fargo City Commission should approve the Fargo Cass Public Health proposal. It's the wise thing to do. And it's the right thing to do.

Editorials represent the views of Forum management and the Editorial Board.