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Hand Up Health Services works in trenches of opioid addiction

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The supplying of free needles and Narcan to Rochester addicts is saving both lives and money. (Courtesy photos)

ROCHESTER - While police work tirelessly to rid the streets of Rochester of fentanyl and heroin and the courts do their part trying to put traffickers behind bars, a group of Seacoast volunteers work quietly behind the scenes to protect those most susceptible to the myriad of health risks of addiction.

Anyone with even a glancing knowledge of the Northern Seacoast's drug infestation knows that deadly opiate addiction has claimed scores, perhaps hundreds of area lives in the past several years - and ruined countless others. But most probably don't know about Hand Up Health Services, a volunteer-based organization that has made it its sole mission to mitigate the number of deaths, sickness and injury due to heroin and fentanyl abuse.

Dr. Joe Hannon

How? They work where the rubber - or more specifically, the needle - hits the road.

Every Monday and Friday, volunteers show up at an unspecified address on Olde Farm Lane in Rochester to dispense sterile and collect used needles, hand out life-saving Narcan and in general, educate the drug-using community to make injection practices as safe as they possibly can.

For Dr. Joe Hannon of Barrington, who helped get the organization off the ground a year and a half ago, the mission of Hand Up is not to eliminate drug use or put users behind bars. It's to keep them alive and as healthy as possible while they're using.

"This won't solve the drug problem, it's not meant to," said Hannon, a former state rep. "It's to keep people healthy and prevent the spread of disease."

Chief among Hand Up's priorities is the supply and education of how to dispense Narcan, a known and effective antidote to an opioid overdose.

By all accounts, Hand Up is making an impact - hands down - right here in the Lilac City. In 2017 Rochester Police responded to 237 reports of overdose, of which 22 were fatalities. In 2018 overdose numbers were down some 30 percent, at 159; while fatalities were down about 40 percent, at 13.

"There's been a precipitous drop in drug overdoses and deaths in our area," Hannon said.

Hand Up also delivers and exchanges clean needles and dispenses Narcan and education weekly in Dover and Somersworth.

The organization's outreach to the drug using community also provides valuable information from addicts who help to keep Hand Up ahead of the curve in the race to get the necessary information to those at the most risk.

For instance, a recent spike in Hepatitis A reported in Strafford County did not go unnoticed by Hand Up, which ratcheted up its effort to identify possible victims of the disease.

Hannon said volunteers will be looking harder for symptoms among addicts like being jaundiced or fighting malaise, or extreme fatigue, which are symptoms of Hepatitis A. It should be noted that contaminated food and water are the most frequent causes of Hepatitis A, not dirty needles, which are a more common cause of Hepatitis C.

Hand Up, a state nonprofit, is financed by private foundations and contributions, which can be made through its website at http://nhhrc.org.

While the nonprofit doesn't charge drug users for their services, Hannon said the cost is a smidgeon of what treatment for diseases communicable through dirty needles like Hepatitis C and AIDS can be.

For instance, one Hepatitis C case can cost $90,000 to treat and an HIV patient's medical bill can easily rise to $500,000 over a lifetime.

Hannon said he has no doubt that addicts are becoming more aware of the risks of sharing needles and shooting up alone and that Hand Up's outreach is saving lives.

"We're getting the data from users," he said. "More are coming aware and learning not to share needles. We're making a huge impact."

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