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BACKGROUND: Needle-syringe exchange programs (NSPs) have been substantially rolled-out in China since 2002. Limited studies reported effectiveness of NSPs in a Chinese setting. This study aimed to assess the association between accessibility to NSPs and drug-use risk behaviors of IDUs by investigating primary (self-reported) data of IDUs recruited from NSP sites, community settings and mandatory detoxification centers (MDCs) in Hunan province, China. METHODS: A cross-sectional survey was conducted in Hunan province in 2010. IDU recruits participated in a face-to-face interview to provide information related to their ability to access NSPs, demographic characteristics, and injecting behaviors in the past 30 days. RESULTS: Of the total 402 participants, 35%, 14% and 51% participants indicated low, medium and high ability to access NSPs in the past 30 days, respectively. A significantly higher proportion of IDUs (77.3%) from the high-access group reported </=2 injecting episodes per day compared with medium- (46.3%) and low-access (58.8%) groups. Only 29.0% of high-access IDUs re-used syringes before disposal in the past 30 days, significantly lower than those in the medium- (43.1%) and low-access (41.3%) groups. Reported levels of needle/syringe sharing decreased significantly as the ability to access NSPs increased (16.3%, 12.7% and 2.5% in the low, medium and high access groups, respectively). Ninety percent of IDUs recruited from MDCs had low ability to access NSPs. CONCLUSIONS: Increased NSP accessibility is associated with decreased levels of injecting frequency, repetitive use and sharing of injecting equipment among Chinese IDUs. Mandatory detention of IDUs remains as a major barrier for IDUs to access NSPs in China.