PHC Lunch Series Recap: Desiree White

Desiree White, New Haven Health Department

On November 7, students and other public health enthusiasts at Yale joined Ms. Desiree White, a community health worker from the New Haven Health Department (NHHD), in a thought-provoking discussion on harm reduction in New Haven and a history of the NHHD Syringe Exchange Program. 

Established in the fall of 1990, the NHHD’s Syringe Exchange Program has been instrumental to the city’s ongoing efforts to combat substance abuse and reduce the severity of consequences faced by drug users. Since its inception, the program has influenced the establishment and development of other syringe exchange programs in Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts, and California. This social justice movement has also resulted in notable legislative action, such as a bill passed in 1993 that legalized the sale and possession of syringes without a prescription in Connecticut. Today, the NHHD serves to minimize the harmful effects of drug use by providing clean needles, information on vein care and proper injection techniques, and referrals to drug treatment programs

Ms. White then introduced our group to Safety Counts, a cognitive-behavioral HIV prevention intervention that allowed clients to define their own risk reduction goals and provided supportive reinforcement for their risk reduction efforts. The program was vital for enabling addicts to seek support and allow their voices to be heard via communication with local health departments. Safety Counts, however, was defunded by the CDC in 2013 for being insufficiently cost-effective and lacking scalability. As a result, the NHHD is facing increased economic strain on its ability to provide injection supplies, condoms, HIV and Hep C tests, and incentives to injection drug users. 

The success and benefits brought about by harm reduction programs cannot go unnoticed. In New Haven alone, HIV incidence in the IDU community plummeted from 49% in 2002 to 6.9% in 2012 as a result of harm reduction efforts. However, despite major successes in the effort to combat drug abuse and HIV incidence, Ms. White urged students and faculty alike to obtain a better understanding of local and national policy, especially those that directly impact the harm reduction campaign. Only then can we begin to tackle the persistent stigma and social challenges faced by drug users and advocate for public health reform.