By Maximilian Eyle
Have you ever wanted to find a great Chinese restaurant near you? How about an HIV testing center in your area? Fortunately, Google’s Business listings make finding these options very easy, with their basic information listed along with their location on a map. You can compare reviews, check if they are open, and more. This is accomplished by having businesses select from a long list of categories which define when and where it will appear in search results. These categories include everything from equestrian facilities to Syrian restaurants, Christian bookstores to yoga studios. Some of my favorite categories from the A section alone include Abrasives Supplier, Adult Day Care, and Angler Fish Restaurant. But if you travel down to the S listings, you will find that Syringe Exchange, Syringe Access, and other related terms are missing. How did a sophisticated registry from one of the world’s largest tech companies come to include such categories as “Nut Store” and “Shinto Shrine” while omitting one of the most important harm reduction resources available to us?
The history of Syringe Access Programs (SAPs) is an important one. The first government-approved SAP opened in the Netherlands more than 30 years ago, and they have since spread across Europe, North and South America, and parts of the Middle East. In the U.S., the Center for Disease Control emphasizes the importance of sterile syringe availability as a critical tool for reducing the dangers of injecting drugs. The idea behind it is simple: by providing people who inject drugs with sterile syringes, we can prevent the spread of HIV and other infections that are transmitted via needle sharing. SAPs also provide a resource for safely disposing of used syringes so they are less likely to be discarded in a public space. By 2002, SAPs had already removed 25 million used syringes from across the U.S.
By providing people who inject drugs with sterile syringes, we can prevent the spread of HIV and other infections that are transmitted via needle sharing.
Van Asher, Harm Reduction Services and Syringe Access Program Manager at St. Ann’s Corner of Harm Reduction, has seen the impact of these programs first hand. “When SACHR began in 1990, there was a 60% HIV incidence rate among the city’s 250,000 people who injected drugs. As a result of [SAPs} and other similar program efforts, the HIV incidence rate in New York City has dropped to under 3% among people who inject drugs.” Furthermore, when a person who injects drugs is in touch with an SAP, they are more likely to receive overdose prevention education and other important harm reduction information. There is also a fiscal incentive to promoting SAPs in addition to the obvious public health motives. HIV/HCV and other infections transmitted through needle sharing can be very expensive to treat. The CDC reports that every dollar spent to expand access to sterile syringes would generate a return on investment of $7.58 due to disease treatment savings and other factors.
There is an ever-expanding list of business types in today’s world, and the purpose of this article is not to denounce Google. But in the face of today’s opioid epidemic, with overdoses rising to the number one cause of death for Americans under 50, listing Syringe Access Programs as a defined category within Google’s business search structure would be an easy and effective means of connecting people with harm reduction resources. By adding a couple lines of code, Google could tangibly help save lives. We hope they will take that step.