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A History of Harm Reduction in Philadelphia

Blog1How many clean syringes were handed out last year by Prevention Point Philadelphia, a local harm reduction nonprofit that provides a wide array of social services to addicts?

That question was posed to the audience gathered at Presby’s PHI building to listen to Brian Work, MD, MPH, an assistant professor of clinical medicine and chair of the board of directors of Prevention Point, talk about harm reduction in Philadelphia. Harm reduction means treating the serious health risks associated with IV drug use without focusing on the use itself.

One audience member guessed 2,000 syringes. Another boldly suggested 20,000. The audience gasped when Work said that last year, Prevention Point handed out more than 2.1 million clean syringes and disposed of more than 1.8 million used needles.

For decades in America, Work told the Presby crowd the heroin addict was seen just as a nuisance. It wasn’t until HIV/AIDS epidemic that the public health crisis from sharing needles became apparent. Of all IV drug users in the late 1980s, about 60 percent were HIV positive and they were responsible for the majority of the spread of HIV in the early years of the epidemic. Consequently, focus went from the harm of the drugs to the syringes themselves.

In the early ‘90s, syringe exchange in Philadelphia was legalized and due to Prevention Point’s efforts the number of HIV-infected users has plummeted. The number has hovered around just five percent over the last several years.

Since the 1990’s, Prevention Point has grown into one of the largest public health providers in the city and the second largest syringe exchange in the country. They still distribute clean syringes, but they now offer many other services, including addiction counseling, housing services, legal aid, and a long list of social services to help Philadelphians in desperate need. They also have four free medical clinics, including HIV and suboxone clinics.

Work also discussed the new Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, which launched in August, and other tools in the physician toolbelt, like Narcan, to help in the fight against opiate abuse.

For more information about Prevention Point Philadelphia, head to


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