A look inside Austin's underground syringe exchange

Giving clean needles to a drug user may sound strange to some..but it's exactly what what one Austin non-profit is doing and for the first time -- it's giving the public a look.

Giving clean needles to a drug user may sound strange to some, but it's exactly what what the Austin non-profit, The Austin Harm Reduction Coalition, is doing. It's part of an underground operation to fight the spread of disease. For the first time, they're giving the public an inside look at the work they do.

"What we do prevents disease, it keeps people safe and it's compassionate," the Austin Harm Reduction Coalition's executive director Andrew Knox said. 

Five days a week, Knox and his organization park their delivery van in various parts of Austin. Drug users come to the van to trade their dirty needles for free clean ones. 

"It looks like we're trying to help people use drugs but in fact we're just trying to help people," Knox said.  

People like one 23-year-old who asked to remain anonymous. For five years, he's been addicted to heroin and Fentanyl, using the drugs daily. 

The goal is to get the dirty needles off the streets and cut down on disease transmission, like the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C. 

"Any time people are using drugs intravenously, they are sharing those needles and so that can transmit HIV and Hepatitis C," Knox said. 

Austin Travis County Health and Human Services reports HIV cases are up in our area and Knox says a program like this is needed for future prevention among drug users. 

"It's a very inexpensive way to prevent diseases," Knox said.  

A clean syringe costs just $2 while the lifetime treatment of HIV is estimated to be at just under $400,000, according to The Centers for Disease Control.

While needle exchanges are technically illegal in Texas, Knox said local law enforcement leaves them alone. 

"We have not been harassed in order to do what's clearly good health policy," Knox said. 

So far, there's been several bills authored aimed at legalizing syringe exchanges that have failed to gain any ground. Knox is optimistic that will one day change.

Right now, The Austin Harm Reduction Coalition operates solely off private donations.There are also several other services they provide. 

To learn more, click here.

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