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Can J Psychiatry. 2008 Aug;53(8):487-95.

Expanding the public health benefits of syringe exchange programs.

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  • 1Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, Maryland, USA.



To provide a brief history of community syringe exchange programs (SEPs), describe the clinical profile of those who attend them, identify factors interfering with the transition of SEP participants to more comprehensive substance abuse treatment services, review studies designed to improve rates of treatment seeking, and offer practical suggestions to facilitate links between SEPs and substance abuse treatment.


Relevant articles were identified using a PubMed literature search of English-language journals from 1997 to 2007. Studies were included that evaluated the effectiveness of SEPs or methods for increasing treatment enrolment in SEP participants or other out-of-treatment intravenous drug users. Relevant articles prior to 1997 were identified using reference lists of identified articles.


SEPs have little impact on rates of drug use or injections. Substance abuse treatment reduces human immunodeficiency virus transmission through drug use reduction and psychosocial functioning improvement, yet SEP participants only infrequently engage in treatment. Psychological and pharmacological interventions delivered at the SEP setting can improve treatment seeking in SEP participants. Use of SEPs by substance abuse treatment programs can improve harm-reduction efforts at these settings.


Efforts to improve the link between SEPs and substance abuse treatment should include interventions to enhance cooperation across programs, motivate treatment enrolment and SEP use, and expand access to treatment. A more fluent and bidirectional continuum of services can enhance the public health benefits of both of these health care delivery settings.

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