By Kelsey Tsipis
Jen Earls still remembers in vivid detail the day she was stuck by a needle working as a police officer in Chicago ten years ago.
“It was my first year on the street when I got stuck from a needle in a woman’s purse,” said Earls, who is now a nurse at Duke Hospital. “At the time I had no idea what to do. I was embarrassed that I had gotten stuck. As a rookie officer you don’t really want to make any waves, you don’t want to stick out.”
Afraid of causing unnecessary attention, Earls didn’t get treatment for the needlestick or make a report to her supervisors. Instead, weeks later she discreetly got tested for HIV/AIDS and viral hepatitis B and C.
Earls’ story is not unique. One in three officers will receive a needle-stick during their careers – putting themselves at risk for HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C, according to the Foundation for AIDS Research.
The group convened a summit earlier this month at the General Assembly to educate policy makers on the unintended problems that arise when syringes are illegal, and to ask them to consider decriminalizing syringe possession in North Carolina.
“The needle that I had gotten stuck with, I had no idea where it had been,” said Earls. “I didn’t know this woman’s health history. I didn’t know anything about her. I just didn’t know how to be safe.”
It wasn’t until Earls became a nurse ten years later that she fully understood the ramifications that the quick needlestick could have had on her life.
“I was put at risk for so many different diseases, and pain and disability down the line,” said Earls. “It could have affected my whole life. It could affect my family’s lives, my ability to make a living or have a successful, long career. I didn’t understand any of that.”
What Can Be Done
Earls now works as an advocate for the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition to educate public safety officials on what to do if they are struck by a needle while on duty. She tells officers that by seeking medical attention immediately they can be treated with prophylactic HIV/AIDS medication AZT to decrease their chances of contracting the virus. And the coalition is encouraging law enforcement agencies to provide needlestick resistant gloves to their officers to protect them when they’re searching a suspect.
Currently, the Greensboro Police Department is the only department in the state to have the needlestick resistant gloves, which can cost up to $200 a pair.
Leaders with the Harm Reduction Coalition also advocate beyond safety for law enforcement personnel. They are working for a change in the public policy – statewide decriminalization of syringes.
Under North Carolina law, its a class A misdemeanor to possess or distribute syringes or other paraphernalia that may be used for injection of illegal substances. The NCHRC maintain that if it is no longer illegal to possess syringes, people would be more willing to tell the police about them, and thus reduce the officer’s risk of being stuck by an infected needle. Researchers from the CDC have found when syringes are decriminalized, law enforcement needlesticks decrease by 66 percent.
They NCHRC also advocate that sterile syringe access can significantly reduce the risk of HIV transmission between the 55,000 injection drug users across the state.
Successful State Statutes
Just months after Earls got stuck by a needle, Illinois became the fifth state to pass a state statute that said syringes were no longer considered paraphernalia. Sixteen states soon followed suit and now 21 states in total have decriminalized syringes.
“After that statute passed, when I went back and thought about it I virtually saw no more needles on the street,” said Earls. “And a lot of people, if they did have paraphernalia that was going to be harmful, they were more open about it. I was kind of amazed.”
Patrick P. Glynn, the commander of the drug control unit in Quincy, Massachusetts, was at the General Assembly as a summit panelist. Glynn said since Massachusetts decriminalized syringes in 2008, his force has seen a significant decrease in the number of times officers have been put at risk for being stuck by needles.
“It is a good thing, it removes that layer of the unknown where the individual and the officer searching doesn’t get stuck,” said Glynn.
The Case for NC
According to an assessment done by the Center for Law and the Public’s Health at Johns Hopkins and Georgetown Universities sterile syringe programs have proven for decades to reduce the risk of HIV transmission among injection drug users, and contributed to the 80 percent drop in HIV transmission from injection drug use since the beginning of the epidemic in the United States. A New York study showed that HIV prevalence fell from 54 to 13 percent among injection drug users following introduction of syringe distribution programs
In North Carolina an estimated 35,000 people are living with HIV/AIDS. The rate of new HIV infections in the state is 41 percent higher than the national rate.
Robert Childs, the executive director of the NCHRC, said this is a public health issue where science strongly supports policy. Childs endorsed a bill (House Bill 601) that would legalize syringe ownership as the cheapest and most logical way to attack the problem.
In 2012, North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition polled 129 law enforcement members, of all ranks, of 41 departments at Crisis Intervention Team trainings throughout the state on what they believed about syringe decriminalization, hepatitis and HIV. Ninety-two percent of the officers said getting HIV from drug users was “a big concern for me as an officer.” Ninety-five percent said getting hepatitis C from drug users was a big concern.
Earls said she hopes North Carolina decriminalizes syringes so that fewer officers worry about experiencing what she did.
“That moment, ten years ago was one of the scariest things that I could have ever gone through,” she said. “Educating officers about how to dispose of a needle if you come across one, or how to handle it. It’s just essential.”