Pubdate: Mon, 20 Nov 2000
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2000 Los Angeles Times
Contact:  Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053
Fax: (213) 237-7679
Author: David Kelly, Times Staff Writer
Bookmark: (Needle Exchange)


Public Health: Officials Say The Effort Will Save Lives And Stem The Spread 
Of Hepatitis And HIV. Law Enforcement Takes A Wait-And-See Approach.

Heeding the advice of Ventura County's public health officer, the 
supervisors put aside their personal feelings about drug abuse and voted 
Tuesday to declare a medical emergency and begin a needle exchange program.

Dr. Robert Levin, medical director of the county Public Health Department, 
warned officials that the spread of HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C was a 
crisis that could be slowed by giving fresh needles to drug abusers 
beginning next spring.

Levin said the program would save lives and reduce the amount of money 
spent on treating those with these often fatal diseases.

"You may save five or you may save 20 lives a year," Levin told the board. 
"One biblical scholar said if you save one life you save all mankind."

Levin said half of the county's intravenous drug users have hepatitis B or 
C. Among county men with AIDS, 19% trace the disease to shooting up drugs, 
and that number jumps to 45% for women.

Since 1994, 1,467 people in the county have been diagnosed with hepatitis C 
and 626 with hepatitis B. Both diseases affect the liver and can be 
transmitted by blood, sex or from a mother to her unborn baby.

Levin said hepatitis C is often fatal, as is chronic hepatitis B. The 
prevalence of hepatitis C in the county is because it was never screened 
for in blood donors until 1992, he added.

Since the mid-1980s there have been 811 confirmed AIDS cases in Ventura 
County, with an estimated 1,000 to 5,000 residents infected with HIV, Levin 

Board members said it was difficult to approve a program that would allow 
people to continue their drug abuse. But most said public health concerns 
come first.

"It's easy to say no, because we don't believe in illegal drug use," said 
Supervisor Judy Mikels. "People addicted to drugs will use them with dirty 
needles or not. People who live in their house have no choice in this. If 
we protect the spouse or children of users from the spread of disease, then 
we are doing the right thing."

Board Chairwoman Kathy Long said she doubts anyone would become a drug 
addict because a needle exchange program was available. "This is a 
prevention tool," she said.

The supervisors voted 4 to 1 to approve the program, with Supervisor Frank 
Schillo dissenting.

"It wasn't easy to say no, but I will say no," he said. "I think this helps 
to continue the threat to the community and to continue the use of drugs. 
It needs to be tied to a specific program of treatment."

The board's vote generated no public comment and little of the controversy 
that normally surrounds this often-contentious issue. Similar programs are 
running in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles counties.

Dist. Atty. Mike Bradbury prepared a report for the Law Enforcement 
Coordinating Committee--consisting of chiefs of the county's five city 
police departments and representatives from his office and the Sheriff's 
Department--saying addicts would share needles with or without the program.

The law enforcement authorities will not oppose the program, he said, but 
if it becomes "a threat to public order or safety," they would push to shut 
it down.

The program will begin in March and will be run by the nonprofit Rainbow 
Alliance in Ventura.

Edie Brown, executive director of the alliance, said she hopes someone will 
donate a van that can be driven to sites around the county frequented by 
intravenous drug users. The program will initially start in Ventura and Oxnard.

"We will give them literature and an AIDS tests if they wish," she said. 
"We want to set up a rapport with users."

Old needles will be dropped in a jar for disposal and new needles handed 
out. Information on where to get help for drug addiction will also be 

"I had a case in my office the other day where a drug user worried that he 
passed on a disease to his pregnant wife," she said.

Undersheriff Craig Husband spent eight years working the narcotics detail 
and said he saw lots of intravenous drug users, many covered in abscesses 
and hopelessly addicted.

"I'm going to take a wait-and-see approach," he said of the plan.

Like other law enforcement officers, he has mixed feelings about needle 

"You don't want to send the wrong message to people," he said. "I have a 
lot of empathy for people addicted to drugs. It destroys their lives, their 
families, the communities they live in. We need to come up with a policy to 
stop them from using drugs."

Husband said the program could be endangered if there was an increase in 
drug use as a result of the clean needles being available or if children 
are found with them.

"We won't accept that," he said.
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