The Dangers of Sharing Needles: AIDS and Hepatitis

Other than for medical uses, hypodermic needles are often associated with the use of the illegal drug heroin. However, drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamine and ketamine can also be injected, as well as many others that can be ground into a powder and mixed with water. While the risks of drug use, such as kidney and heart disease, are widely publicised, the risks of using the needles themselves are often over-looked. Diseases like AIDS and Hepatitis are usually catalogued as sexually transmitted when, in reality, many of the 34 million sufferers worldwide have caught such disease from sharing needles with other drug users.

What is AIDS? 

AIDS, or Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, starts as HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus), a condition which begins to attack cells within the human body. The virus attacks and destroys the cells, known as T-cells and CD4 cells, which are responsible for keeping your immune system in full working order. HIV then deteriorates into AIDS where the sufferer has a considerably weakened immune system and can no longer fight illnesses, even the common cold. People living with AIDS must live on a cocktail of medications as there is currently no cure. AIDS is usually contracted by the swapping of bodily fluid, such as semen or – in the case of needle use – blood. When a drug user injects themselves with a needle that’s been used by another drug user who is HIV positive or has AIDS, they are at an incredibly high risk at contracting the disease themselves.

The early stages of HIV mimic those of flu, such as:  

  • Fever
  • Night sweats
  • Aches
  • Sore throat

This allows the disease to lie dormant for a while, as the sufferer often believes they’re just suffering from a bad case of the flu. However, a blood test can determine whether the person is in fact HIV-positive.

What is Hepatitis? 

Hepatitis B and C are both spread by the contamination of bodily fluids, such as blood, and can therefore be caught by sharing needles with an infected person.

Hepatitis B affects the liver and is caused by the HBV virus. The initial symptoms are similar to those of HIV, inflicting flu-like symptoms on the sufferer, as well as:

  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Yellow skin and eyes (jaundice)

Although it can be diagnosed by a straightforward blood test and treated with medication, some sufferers can’t escape the virus and it can develop into liver cancer or Hepatitis D, if the sufferer sleeps with someone infected with the virus HDV without protection.

Hepatitis C, caused by the HCV virus, is similar to Hepatitis B. It’s spread in the same fashion, by sharing needles, and can lead to irreparable liver damage or cirrhosis.

Prevention is the best cure 

Treatment for those who suffer from HIV/AIDS has progressed extensively since the 1980s when it first hit the headlines. Sufferers can now enjoy a reasonable quality of life. However, they have to take a range of medication daily to maintain this. Many Hepatitis sufferers can rid themselves of the disease, but for those who can’t, liver damage and even liver cancer can mar their lives forever.

To prevent the spread of these diseases, three main precautions can be taken:

  1. Do not share  – a user should not share needles with anyone, even if they feel they know the other user well.
  2. Clean – there are many programmes and charities worldwide, which provide clean, sterile needles for users.
  3. Disposal – after the needle has been used, dispose of it safely. Many companies provide users with special disposal units for needles. In cases where these are not available, heavy duty household containers can be used. The user must then dispose of the unit in accordance with their community guidelines.

By following these simple steps and being aware of the diseases that can be spread by sharing needles, the risk of infection should be greatly reduced.