Speaking up about the opioid crisis

A group of about 40 Carver College of Medicine students visited the Iowa state capitol on Oct. 17 to attend a hearing of the interim legislative study committee on the opioid epidemic.

The group, led by Sarah Ziegenhorn and Jonathan Birdsall (both second year medical students), wanted to send a clear message to the legislators through their physical presence: That they expect the bipartisan committee to take action and ensure the passage of key legislation to address the opioid crisis in the 2018 legislative session.

The legislators were clearly impressed by the large number of students who packed the supreme court chamber and remarked that the students made a “powerful statement.”

Ziegenhorn and Birdsall delivered testimony on a bill introduced last year and which will be reintroduced in the 2018 session. The bill would modify Iowa’s drug paraphernalia code to allow for the legalization of syringe service programs (sometimes known as needle exchange).

“While we were addressing the legislators, I was thinking about our patients who are dying because our state has failed to support science-based public health policy,” Ziegenhorn says. She has spoken with numerous individuals who are desperate for treatment. One individual she talked to just a day before the testimony had tested positive for hepatitis C (due to sharing of injection materials). But because Iowa does not provide evidence-based hepatitis prevention and treatment services for people who use drugs, that individual will likely develop liver cancer as an unfair consequence of a substance use disorder.

Syringe service programs have been called “the single greatest intervention to reduce the spread of infectious disease” by the World Health Organization, and have been implemented in 36 states. In their testimony, Ziegenhorn and Birdsall discussed the evidence base for these programs, including the role in linking people who experience substance use disorders to addiction treatment services.

Throughout the next two months leading up to the legislative session (and once the session starts), the group will continue to meet with legislators and stakeholder organizations to provide education on syringe service programs.

Other efforts

The group has also been working for the past year on advocating for syringe service program legalization and implementation. Last year, Ziegerhorn founded the Iowa Harm Reduction Coalition (IHRC), a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. The coalition distributes free naloxone across the state–a medication used to treat opioid overdose. It also provides weekly health outreach services to people who use drugs, and advocates for syringe exchange legalization. Through IHRC, they have begun to build an infrastructure for syringe service program implementation in multiple Iowa communities.

In September, the group co-hosted the UI Harm Reduction Summit, which provided health professionals, UI health professions students, and community members an opportunity to learn more about policy solutions to Iowa’s opioid, meth, and hepatitis C crises (including syringe service programs).

Thursday, October 26, 2017