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A year after its inception, the region's only syringe exchange program revealed promising data in its effort to curb the spread of blood-borne infectious diseases.

Injection drug use has soared as a result of the opioid epidemic, and with that so has the risk of diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C that can be spread when infected needles are shared. STEP TN — which stands for Syringe Trade and Education Program of Tennessee — is operated locally by Cempa Community Care and is a free, anonymous program allowing participants to exchange used needles for sterile ones.

Since March 2018, 909 people have participated in the program, 122,633 used syringes were safely discarded and 161,017 clean syringes were dispensed.

Ashley Ewald, manager of STEP TN, said the program's initial goals were education and harm reduction, but it's become "much more than just preventing infectious disease."

When clients exchange syringes, they're also given free testing for HIV and hepatitis C, information about substance use treatment and naloxone — a drug that can reverse the effects of an opioid drug overdose.

"We are an entry point to an otherwise marginalized population," Ewald said. "This is a program that gives them hope."

In the past year, 35 participants tested positive for hepatitis C.

"That's major, because 35 people now know their status," Ewald said.

Shannon Stephenson, CEO at Cempa Community Care, said results from STEP TN's first year "far exceeded" expectations.

"The significant increase in participation rates over the course of STEP TN's first year shows just how much program participants trust our team," Stephenson said in a news release. "There is a substantial amount of stigma attached to a program like this, but one of our goals at Cempa is to challenge negative mindsets and deliver care to those who need it most. I'm proud of our team for the impactful work they've done."

Cempa Community Care, formerly Chattanooga CARES, is a nonprofit health care organization offering free STD testing, treatment and support services to anyone age 15 and over.

STEP TN also operates a mobile unit in Hixson and co-administers the program alongside East Tennessee State University, which oversees efforts in Washington County. Data in this article includes Hamilton and Washington County.

The program is funded by AIDS United, the Tennessee Department of Health, Samaritan Ministry and donations.

The state's two other syringe exchange programs are in Knoxville and Nashville.

Contact staff writer Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.

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