Heroin is a growing issue in our area, but a map released by the La Crosse fire department puts the problem in a new perspective.
The task of picking up improperly discarded drug needles falls on the fire department. This map uses information from 2014 and 2015 to show where the department has found needles during that two-year time period in the city of La Crosse.
The La Crosse fire chief says showing the data this way is a good method of showing just how important it is to address the problem.
"Everybody's affected by this, all you need to do is look at the map,” Chief Gregg Cleveland said. "We have them by the children's museum; we have them by parks; we have them by schools."
It can be just one needle, or multiple needles.
"In some cases, we've picked up 50 or more needles,” Cleveland said.
Though it may seem easy to blame the needle-exchange program at the AIDS resource center in downtown La Crosse, some health officials say the program’s pros outweigh the cons.
“I believe though even if the needle-exchange program wasn’t here we'd still find the needles,” La Crosse County health educator Al Bliss said. “It’s possible it could be worse."
"If the needle-exchange wasn't available, that map would be bigger and broader,” said Emily Whitney, assistant professor of public and community health education at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
Whitney said many of the needles are returned: "80 percent that are given out are brought back."
Bliss and Whitney said not only do exchange programs prevent the spread of communicable diseases, such as Hepatitis C and HIV, but they can encourage users to get help.
"Needle-exchange programs don't increase heroin users. They actually are reducing those numbers, because as a person comes in, they're able to have some education and do quick one-on-one interventions to see if person wants to do treatment,” Whitney said.
"There’s no question that there are benefits of having an exchange program, but you can see with unintended consequences that's just as important to dispose of these needles because it does pose a public-health problem."
Fire Chief Cleveland hopes that by showing the breadth of the problem, the community will realize it takes everyone's help to solve it.
“People have to understand that it's not somebody else's problem,” he said.
One way to help will likely be coming in spring. With the help of local organizations, health officials hope to have a volunteer needle-pickup program up and running next year.