One of the Louisville’s health department syringe exchange vans | Photo by Joe Sonka

The syringe exchange of Louisville’s health department is now entering its third year, having distributed more than 1.2 million clean needles to clients dealing with drug addiction from June of 2015 through this May.

While the exchange began with one van outside the downtown office of the Department of Public Health and Wellness and only served 276 clients in its first full month, it has expanded to three more locations throughout the city and served a record 1,736 unique participants in May.

Health department records provided to IL show that 10,639 unique clients have visited a syringe exchange site in the first two years, with 4,559 of those being returning clients. With a goal of preventing the spread of blood-borne infectious diseases among shared needle users — as happened in Austin, Ind. in early 2015 — 691 clients have been tested for Hepatitis C and 800 tested for HIV. Of those, 268 tested positive for Hepatitis C and 374 (including those previously diagnosed) were referred for treatment, while three clients tested positive for HIV and 18 were referred to HIV treatment.

Of the syringe exchange clients in these two years, 389 have been referred to drug treatment, with 82.7 percent of clients indicating they use heroin, while 23 percent use methamphetamine. Nearly 77 percent of participants are under the age of 40 and 37 percent are under 30, while 61 percent are male and 92.6 percent are white. Two-thirds of clients are unemployed, while 56.7 are covered by Medicaid and 27 percent have no form of health insurance.

As for what percentage of needles distributed to clients are later returned to the syringe exchanges, that distribute-to-return ratio has continued to steadily improve and has remained under 2-to-1 every month since the beginning of 2016.

Return ratio statistics and graph provided by the Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness

In total, 1,242,813 clean needles have been provided to clients, while 748,253 — just over 60 percent — have been returned to the exchange. Among the returning clients over the past two years, 71 percent of needles were returned. This percentage has steadily improved over the past year, with 63.4 percent of needles returned in May, and 83.5 percent among returning clients.

May was the busiest month ever at the syringe exchanges, with a record 2,306 visits from 1,736 unique participants, who obtained 88,253 needles, the second most of any month in its history. The exchange collected 55,984 needles that month, which was also a record high. In comparison, during July of 2015, the one exchange downtown had 411 visits from 276 unique participants, who obtained 10,829 needles and returned 4,316.

Joe Sonka
Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]