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Vending machine will provide free access to safer injection supplies & clean needles

, by Emily Newman

This month, public health officials in Las Vegas rolled out an innovative program to help curb the spread of HIV, hepatitis C and other blood-borne infections that can be transmitted during injection drug use. A vending machine—dispensing safer drug injection supplies—was installed outside a needle exchange storefront to freely and consistently provide safer supplies and clean needles around the clock. The project is a collaboration between the Nevada AIDS Research and Education Society, the Southern Nevada Health District and Trac-B Exchange.

“We’re still in the process of implementation, but the idea is to provide a stable and consistent source of safer injection supplies, with machines in places that don’t have to be staffed,” said Rick Reich, founder of Trac-B Exchange.

Read why freely distributing syringes—with no limits on the number provided—is the best model to reduce the spread of HIV and hepatitis C.

Safer injection supplies vending machine

Vending machine containing safer drug injection supplies (Photo courtesy of Rick Reich)

The vending machine “is more like an ATM,” said Reich, although the products are provided free of charge. People who need access to injection supplies will punch in a code or swipe a magnetic card to dispense a box of safer injection supplies from the machine.

In addition to clean needles, the supply box contains alcohol pads, sterile water, a tourniquet and cotton filters. Attached to the vending machine is a canister where people can safely dispose of used needles.

Reich reported that the vending machine will be operational in early May, 2017.

Although Las Vegas allows needles to be sold by pharmacies, and needle distribution programs operate in some places around the city, the distribution of safer injection supplies has largely been “hit or miss,” said Reich. “There hasn’t been anything that is really stable and consistent.”

The landscape and environment of Las Vegas has also been a barrier for people who inject drugs to access supplies, and for outreach workers to get supplies to people in need. “You may know—in the summer, it’s really hot here. It’s not a town where it’s easy to walk around to get supplies. We also have people who use drugs living in the tunnels [covered rain washes that run underground], and those people are difficult to reach with safer injection supplies,” said Reich.

Using automated vending machines to dispense needles to people who inject drugs is not a new idea. Yolande Obadia, MD, and colleagues describe a similar program implemented in Marseille, France in 1996 in an article published in the American Journal of Public Health. Other countries, including the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and Australia also use vending machines to distribute needles and other safer injection supplies. The program in Las Vegas is the first time vending machines have been used to dispense safer injection supplies in the U.S.

Terry Morris, director of Syringes Access Services for San Francisco AIDS Foundation, was enthusiastic about the idea to use vending machines to dispense supplies. “I think vending machines would be an incredible addition to syringes access services in San Francisco, because there would be 24-hour access,” she said. “When you think about the fact that there are 22,000 people who inject in San Francisco, you can’t go wrong with more access.”

San Francisco does not currently offer automated syringe access, although the city is currently considering the feasibility of safer injection facilities as an additional way to support and improve the health of people who inject drugs.

Read more on BETA about the fentanyl crisis and opioid overdoses and what San Francisco is doing to reduce the amount of injection drug litter on the street.

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