This article was originally published on the SciBlogs network on 16/6/2017. It is reproduced here with permission.
The nurse steadied my arm as she gently positioned the syringe barrel in place. “You can look away if you need to,” she said, “it will soon be over.” I squirmed in my seat, but kept my eyes fixed on the needle as it gently slid beneath my skin. I was six years old, and photographs of children suffering from measles, mumps and rubella kept me awake at night. I would toss and turn, imagining that every tickle from my flannelette sheets was the first bump of an angry measles rash. This cold, silver needle gliding into my vein represented freedom from this anxiety. It stung, and it made me feel queasy, but any childhood fear of contracting some horrifically virulent disease was alleviated.
Disposable syringes made of plastic are commonplace today. We don’t blink twice upon seeing a hollow needle made of metal, a barrel and a plunger made of plastic. Indeed, sixteen billion of them are used the world over every year. However, it has been only 55 years since the plastic syringe was invented, replacing the glass and metal syringes that had been used since the 17th century. The plastic disposable syringe was invented by a New Zealander, the pharmacist and veterinarian Colin Albert Murdoch. Born in Christchurch on the 6th of February, 1929, the young Murdoch was a precocious and intelligent child. At the age of ten, instead of playing with mud pies, he was already mixing nitrates with sulphuric acid to make gunpowder, building himself a firearm with a wick and a small asbestos-filled hammer. Despite suffering from dyslexia, Murdoch had an avid interest in chemistry and began studying at the College of Pharmacy in Wellington. At the age of 25, he opened a pharmacy in Timaru.
Murdoch was a remarkably compassionate and thoughtful man. At the age of 13, he saved a man from drowning in the New Brighton estuary and was awarded the Royal Humane Society Medal. Murdoch’s empathy extended not only to humans, but also animals. Later in his life, Murdoch studied veterinary medicine and turned his hand at treating animals and livestock. He was well aware of the risks in reusing syringes; the glass syringes in use at the time were designed for multiple use and were sterilised each time. Infection caused by the transmission of dangerous pathogens from animal to animal or person to person still occurred, despite careful sterilisation practices. This was because crystalline antibiotic deposits on the inside walls of the syringes had made bacteria resistant. Murdoch thus set out to design the disposable hypodermic syringe, a plastic version of its glass predecessors. According to legend, the eureka moment hit Murdoch as he was playing with his fountain pen. Perhaps all those kids playing with their fidget spinners are onto something.
Murdoch immediately presented his design to the New Zealand Department of Health, but his idea was dismissed as being too “abstruse” and “futuristic”. Development of the syringe was delayed for several years due to a lack of funding and support. Thankfully, Murdoch’s design was finally implemented, and became incredibly successful. As articulated in the book Kiwi Ingenuity – A Book of New Zealand Ideas and Inventions, published in 1993, “It is impossible to comprehend the catastrophic consequences of this situation if such practices were still occurring today. Diseases of such ultimate incurability and virulence as the HIV and AIDS virus, hepatitis A, B, C and most recently a new D form… and TB to name just a few. Instead of now having to care for, and contain, the several million infected people throughout the world who have AIDS, the numbers could well be 30 or 40 percent of the entire population.”
Colin Murdoch was a prolific inventor and went on to design many different variations of the disposable syringe, such as prepared ampoule-type moulded plastic syringe darts, disposable automatic vaccinator syringes, disposable sterile pre-filled hypodermic syringes, sterile self-filling syringes for blood samples, variable dose vaccinator syringes and wet and dry disposable syringes. Despite owning the patents to over 40 inventions, Murdoch did not profit greatly from his designs. In 1995, he told the Timaru Herald, “Patents give you the right to sue, they don’t give you the money to sue. It just costs too much.”
Clean Needle Exchanges
As well as facilitating countless vaccinations and saving the lives of diabetics the world over, the disposable syringe has also revolutionised the lives of people with drug addictions. The value of clean needle exchanges has been proven time and time again. A comprehensive 2004 study by the World Health Organisation (WHO) found a “compelling case that NSPs substantially and cost effectively reduce the spread of HIV among IDUs and do so without evidence of exacerbating injecting drug use at either the individual or societal level.” At these clean needle exchanges, injecting drugs users may obtain hypodermic needles at little or no cost.
Based on the philosophy of harm reduction that attempts to reduce the risk factors for diseases such as HIV/AIDs, clean needle exchanges offer equipment free of charge, and often require service users to return used syringes to receive an equal number of new syringes. These exchanges and the disposable, single-use needles they offer, decrease the spread of HIV and hepatitis without creating new drug users. Moreover, the vast majority of clean needle exchanges aren’t just clean, clinical offices where drug users can shuffle in to pick up equipment. Instead, these programs host support clubs, HIV and STI testing, health and counselling service referrals, the provision of up-to-date information about safe injecting practices, and access to contraception and sexual health service. They can also serve as safe spaces for individuals to learn about their rights and recover their dignity.