Pubdate: Tue, 17 Oct 2000
Source: San Diego Union Tribune (CA)
Copyright: 2000 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.
Contact:  PO Box 120191, San Diego, CA, 92112-0191
Fax: (619) 293-1440
Author: Caitlin Rother, Staff Writer


Council Declares Existence Of Hepatitis C Emergency

San Diego faces a public health emergency, the City Council declared yesterday.

With that, the council moved closer to establishing a clean-needle exchange 

The declaration came at the urging of medical professionals who said there 
is an epidemic of hepatitis C in the county. It is a virus that can be 
spread by sexual contact, tattooing, blood transfusions and sharing razors 
or needles.

"This is a real epidemic," said Ian Trowbridge, a professor at Salk 
Institute and UCSD.

Council members Harry Mathis, Valerie Stallings, Christine Kehoe, Byron 
Wear and Phil Blair voted for the motion. Mayor Susan Golding and 
Councilwoman Judy McCarty voted against it. George Stevens and Juan Vargas 
were absent for the vote, but Vargas indicated his support before he left 
the dais.

After declaring the emergency, the council directed the city manager to put 
together a task force to develop a one-year pilot needle-exchange program. 
The issue will come back to the council for a vote before any needles are 

Mathis said he is unconcerned that some think the council is encouraging 
drug use by exploring such a program.

Just because county government, which oversees public health in the region, 
has not been willing to declare an emergency does not mean the city should 
not, he said.

"These are issues I think we have a responsibility for," Mathis said.

The absence of such action by the county was a running theme throughout 
yesterday's 90-minute discussion.

Public speakers and council members said the city needs to take a 
leadership role precisely because the county has not. Several council 
members remarked on the absence of county officials at yesterday's meeting.

If the county cannot support a needle-exchange program, several speakers 
said, it should find other programs it can back. The Board of Supervisors 
has rejected the idea of needle exchange for a decade.

If implemented, the city's program would be subsidized by the nonprofit 
Alliance Healthcare Foundation, which gives grants to health-related 
causes. The foundation is willing to spend as much as $750,000 on this 
program, according to spokeswoman Stephanie Casenza.

It is unlikely, however, that a majority of the current council will be in 
office to see through any such program. Five new council members, including 
a new mayor, will be sworn in Dec. 4.

Police Chief David Bejarano opposed the program, saying he believes it will 
bring more drug addicts and crime into the city.

County Supervisor Dianne Jacob, who could not be reached for comment last 
night, said last month that, if there were a need for a public state of 
emergency to be declared, the county health director would have done so.

Trowbridge noted that the county's own data shows that the number of cases 
of hepatitis C doubled between 1998 and 1999 in San Diego County.

"I don't know how many cases the county needs before it declares a state of 
emergency," he said.
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