• Street level programs in Merrimack Valley are fighting spread of HIV

    By: Jason Solowski

    Updated:

    LAWRENCE, Mass. -- Inside this brown Chevy Trailblazer, parked on Common Steet in Lawrence, are items aimed at saving lives

    "This has a condom, alcohol wipes, tourniquet, a cooker, it has the needles" says Ralph Galen, showing supplies inside a sandwich bag, he retrieved from a drawer in the rear of the SUV.

    A man approaches the Trailblazer. He hands Galen a shopping bag with a sharps container filled with used syringes. Galen reaches into one drawer and gives the man a small plastic bag filled with supplies. He also gives the man two new sharps containers to collect more used syringes.  The man tells us he uses heroin and the situation here is dire.

    “It's hard to be out here. It's crazy. We need help. We need support,” he said.

    Galen and Anastasia Wheeler hand out these items every week as part of a mobile clean needle exchange program - all to reduce the risk of spreading HIV among opioid users in the Merrimack Valley area.

    Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control just arrived in Massachusetts to investigate an HIV cluster in the region.  

    Boston 25 news broke news of the spike in HIV cases in March.


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    The Massachusetts Department of Public Health announced weeks later that 52 new cases of HIV were identified in the cities of Lowell and Lawrence in 2017.  Lowell just had three new HIV cases in 2016.

    In the following weeks, DPH researchers have been conducting in-depth interviews with local providers and with drug users in the area to determine the size and scope of the outbreak.  Dr. Al DeMaria with DPH says that new cases are being identified, but it’s too early to release those numbers. 

    "We are committed to give out these needles because people are dying," said Galen.

    To help track opioid related issues, participants answer questionnaires. Six months ago, Wheeler says they saw a spike in people who say they're HIV positive. 

    “I had a woman say to me that she needed clean needles. She had just gotten out of jail and she knew she was HIV positive and someone had asked to use her needle the day before and she said- ‘I have HIV’ and they said ‘I don't care,’” said Wheeler

    Carl Sciortino, executive director for the AIDS Action Committee says many people may not even realize they have HIV and if they do, may not have access to proper care.

    “I think we need a lot more aggressive interventions, which requires a lot more access to data in real time,” said Sciortino.

    We joined Jamie Dillon with Lowell's Life Connections Center, picking up dirty needles in the South Common located around the corner.

    “So, this one I'm not marking any syringes, but I am taking note about that cap," says Dillon as she picks up a syringe cap with a clamp and places it in a sharps container.  She then enters into a smartphone app about where she found the paraphernalia.

    In just about an hour she found dozens of used needles, including one with heroin still inside.

    Dillon wants to see more outreach programs specifically for hiv awareness- including testing, clean needles, and education.

    "There's not enough knowledge about how bad this could really get," says Dillon.

    In the current budget, Governor Charlie Baker cut funding for HIV and AIDS prevention for 2018.

    Baker’s spokesperson Brendan Moss said that even though there were cuts, no services were reduced. 

    “The Baker-Polito administration has quadrupled the number of needle exchanges in Massachusetts since coming into office and invested $35 million in the governor’s budget proposal for HIV/AIDS treatment and resources,” says Moss.

    Sciortino says he's worried less services could mean more HIV clusters.

    “It's absurd to me. We should be doubling down on our efforts, not cutting the budget,” says Sciortino, “I expect that we're going to have more outbreaks of HIV in the future. It's only a matter of time."

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