Pubdate: Wed, 29 May 2002
Source: Ukiah Daily Journal, The (CA)
Contact:  2002, MediaNews Group, Inc.
Author: Glenda Anderson
Bookmark: (Needle Exchange)


Every two weeks for the last year-and-a-half, county supervisors vote on
whether to continue allowing a legal needle exchange program in the county.

Every two weeks, the vote is 3-2, with 1st and 3rd districts Supervisors
Mike Delbar and Tom Lucier voting no.

Despite their concerns about the program which handed out more than 31,000
clean needles in exchange for dirty ones in its first year it does not
promote drug use and does prevent the spread of diseases, said Elizabeth
Ross, who directs the HOPE program, which is part of the Mendocino County
AIDS Volunteer Network.

She said a number of studies have been conducted and none have indicated
needle exchange programs affect drug use one way or the other.

What it does do, and what it's intended to do, is decrease the transmission
of AIDS and hepatitis C, which has been dramatically increasing in the
county, Ross said.

"It doesn't affect whether people use or not, but it will save lives," she

Ross cited a Beth Israel hospital study that indicated the HIV rate among
injection drug users in Manhattan dropped from 60 percent to 14 percent in
the last 10 years because of its needle exchange program.

That's the equivalent of 50,000 lives saved, according to the study.

Needle exchange programs are legal in New York, Ross noted. So, unlike in
California, it doesn't require that a state of emergency be declared to
implement them. 

That's a good thing for New York, because the issue is a "political
football," Ross said. She noted the reason California counties must declare
a health emergency rather than having a legal exchange program is Gov. Gray
Davis was reluctant to approve such legislation.

"It was a compromise," Ross said of the needle exchange legislation.

As a result, instead of being the health-care issue that it should be, "it
gets dragged in (to the political arena) again and again," she said. And,
because of that, some counties are making progress against diseases spread
by needle sharing and others aren't.

Sacramento County, for example, has a huge problem, but its county
supervisors haven't made the necessary declaration to get a needle exchange
program going.

"It is really unfortunate. We're living in a time where the issue of drug
use, drug treatment, is quite pivotal and critical," Ross said.

Skeptics should consider the fact it's not just the drug users who risk
illness and death, it's also their sexual partners and, in the case of
hepatitis, people who might share a toothbrush, razor or cocaine-snorting
straw because the virus is hardy, health officials note.

Critics also should be aware that prevention saves taxpayer dollars.

"It costs $100,000 a year to treat someone with HIV, and it costs 11 cents
for a syringe," Ross said, adding that the 11 cents isn't charged to

"Not a penny of public funds go toward this program; I raised it all
myself," she said.

There is, however, public money for finding and educating IV drug users and
testing them for HIV and hepatitis C.

The 30,000, or so, needles distributed last year were given to an estimated
400 people, Ross said. She said it's estimated that's only 30 percent of the
county's IV drug users.

She noted her organization does not ask for, nor keep records of its
clients' names. Doing so would cause them to be fearful of showing up, Ross

The sites of the needles exchanges also aren't widely publicized rather it
depends on word of mouth again for protection, although law enforcement has
been cooperative, she said.

"They've been very respectful of our program," Ross said. "They understand
this is a health care issue."

While the program is relatively new, Ross said it's off to a good start.

"I would give us another bunch of years to really reach success," she said.

Meantime, she's hoping proposed legislation that would allow syringes to be
distributed through pharmacies is successful.

"It's very smart," Ross said.

She's also hoping more elected officials are convinced of the program's

"I gave this information to the supervisors of this county. Some of them are
eager for this information," Ross said.
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