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Kansas City needle exchange program sees 350 clients monthly

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- More than 80 recent cases of HIV in one Indiana County have the governor temporarily lifting a ban on needle exchange programs, and state lawmakers may permanently lift it. Kansas City has had a needle exchange program for 22 years with tens of thousands of needles exchanged monthly.

Every month, 350 people walk into the Kansas City Care Clinic on Broadway to turn in their dirty needles from IV drug use. Thirty thousand needles a month go into the biohazard bin.

"We give them clean syringes on an equal basis for what they bring in, so if a client brings in 200 needles, dirty needles, we give them 200 clean needles," said Roberta Esmond, HIV Prevention Manager.

They're also given other supplies. It's all done confidentially.

"If you give a client clean syringes, you reduce the likelihood they will get HIV or hepatitis," said Esmond.

She says that's because they're less likely to share needles. The Centers for Disease Control says needle exchange programs are one reason why there are nearly 90 percent fewer HIV infections from IV drug use than there were in the late 1980s.

Missouri does not have a law banning or encouraging exchange programs. Kansas bans them. Some lawmakers say exchanges encourage IV drug use. Esmond disagrees, saying each time people come in, they're reminded of the help available to quit.

"Clients come in all the time. I am ready. I'm done. I want to get off. So they just tell us, we can support them, give them a referral," said Esmond.

She thinks the HIV outbreak in Indiana could result in the federal government again funding needle exchange programs. It hasn't since 2012. The KC Care Clinic program, the only one in Missouri, is funded by donations.

Esmond says people regularly come from as far as 80 miles away. She adds that over the last 18 months, there's been an uptick in IV drug use as people turn to heroin because it's cheaper than other drugs.

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