LA CROSSE, WI - There's more proof the heroin problem in La Crosse is not going anywhere.
A local group that runs a needle exchange says the number of needles it's given out has increased by almost 600 percent in just five years.
Using a dirty needle to inject heroin can spread serious, deadly diseases like HIV and hepatitis C.
It's a problem the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin is trying to solve through its needle exchange program.22881340
In the past few years, it has taken off.
Breaking a heroin addiction is not as simple as just deciding to quit.
"What we're dealing with here is another medical illness," said Dr. William Bucknam. "People, once they start using, are quickly addicted to it to the point that they cannot stop using."
Which is why the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin is trying to make sure that if someone can't quit, they aren't exposing themselves to a host of diseases from using dirty needles.
It runs a needle exchange program in which people can turn in their dirty ones for clean ones.
"The goal of the program is to prevent disease, specifically HIV and hepatitis C. So as important as it is for people to use sterile equipment for every time they inject, we also want to get the dirty contaminated needles off the streets, as well," said AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin needle exchange supervisor Scott Stokes.
Stokes said the program's popularity has skyrocketed in La Crosse.
In 2008, the center gave out more than 11,000 syringes in La Crosse. Just four years later, in 2012, that number jumped to almost 69,000.
Stokes said there are still many drug users in the La Crosse area who are not taking advantage of the program.
"I don't think we've saturated the drug-using community in La Crosse. One of the things we do is we ask if they're exchanging for other individuals, because sometimes these using groups will only have one or two people that will actually go to the exchange. They might be exchanging for five or 10 others, and we really want to see the others," said Stokes.
And as the problem of heroin use continues to grow, medical professionals in La Crosse say keeping those needles clean will play an important role in keeping the entire community safe.
"By having less HIV, hepatitis C, communicable diseases, then it's less likely to be shared with other people in the community," said Bucknam.
Some worry a needle exchange program encourages drug use, but the AIDS Resource Center said since 1994, it's seen a more than 65 percent decrease in HIV among intravenous drug users because of efforts like the needle exchange program.
The trend in La Crosse is the same across the state.
In 2012, the center exchanged just more than 2 million needles, up 500,000 from 2011.
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