A needle-exchange program founded by an alum is preventing disease and steering addicted people toward treatment.
Peggy Anderson ’97 MSW could no longer stand by as society pushed people addicted to drugs into the shadows. So, in 2016, the chief operating officer of the not-for-profit Equitas Health system founded Safe Point, a lifesaving harm-reduction program responsible for distributing 1.5 million free needles to 3,000 people across central Ohio. Safe Point has prevented countless cases of HIV and hepatitis C while steering hundreds of addicts toward treatment options.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Anderson’s ties to Ohio State and Equitas’ location in Columbus, a number of Buckeyes have become involved with Safe Point. Anderson, retired associate professor of public health Randi Love and Ohio State medical student Daniel Brook told us why they feel drawn to pay forward in this way.
Peggy Anderson ’97 MSW
Equitas Health COO and founder of Safe Point
Third-year MD/PhD student in the colleges of Medicine and Public Health
Retired associate professor of public health
What fuels your desire to help this population?
Peggy Anderson, Equitas Health COO and founder of Safe Point: I’m a social worker in my soul. I want to serve the ones who others discarded and don’t care about. I do have family members who are addicted. Some are in recovery, and we’ve lost some as well. That’s why we keep fighting to save these people.
Daniel Brook, third-year MD/PhD student in the colleges of Medicine and Public Health: I recently founded the Public Health and Preventive Medicine Interest Group, and I thought the opportunity was great for our organization. The constant barrage from the public and lawmakers against evidence-based approaches to public health fuels my drive to be involved.
Randi Love, longtime Ohio State lecturer in health behavior and health promotion: For me, it goes back to my work in the 1980s, when I was researching the actions of injection drug users and how to prevent them from getting infected with HIV. It gave me a new understanding of what addiction meant in people’s lives.
What has surprised you about being involved in Safe Point or working with clients?
Love: I’m surprised how grateful people are when I volunteer. In public health, you don’t always get this. I don’t expect the gratitude, but it’s certainly a pleasure to receive it.
Brook (who recently shadowed Dr. Julie Teater ’08 MD at Talbot Hall, Ohio State’s addiction-treatment facility): Understanding what pushed people over the edge to come into detox has been the most surprising to me: Some had new children, others were battling to keep their job or a struggling marriage.
Anderson: I was talking to a couple of [clients], and they told me they assumed when I first met them that they were trash and not worthy. It’s so heart-breaking when they tell you that when you smile at them, no one has done that in a long time.
How do you respond to criticism that this work enables people to continue using drugs?
Anderson: We hear that a lot. We really believe in the impressive research that says programs like this work. We’re not enabling; we are building relationships with folks. We feel like we are keeping people in this population healthier and helping the public’s overall health.
Love: People are going to use. Clean needles stop the transmission of diseases. It’s not like we don’t address treatment and making better choices.
How do you measure the success of Safe Point?
Anderson: We’ve had more than 600 referrals for treatment [in 18 months]. That’s not the goal of what we do, but that’s pretty significant. Some of it is anecdotal. People say, “My arms have never looked better.”
Love: I would measure it by disease rates. Look at the HIV infection rate staying at a low level and a reduction in hepatitis C infection rates. We can look at the number of referrals [for treatment]. We create a healthier community through harm reduction.