Pubdate: Mon, 15 Jul 2002
Source: Albuquerque Journal (NM)
Copyright: 2002 Albuquerque Journal
Author: Jackie Jadrnak
Bookmark: (Needle Exchange)


City Councilor Hess Yntema blames the state's needle-exchange program for 
drug users for a proliferation of discarded needles around Albuquerque.

But program supporters point out that, in order to get new needles, drug 
users have to bring in an equal number of used needles. The program gets 
needles off the streets, not the other way around, according to Maureen 
Rule, who runs Health Care for the Homeless' needle-exchange program.

The conflict pits concerns about neighborhood drug use against efforts to 
limit the spread of diseases, such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C, which can 
be spread when people share dirty needles.

The discord heated up last month after a child in a city-sponsored free 
lunch program found a used needle in a park. The city has targeted police 
patrols to nine particularly troublesome parks.

Rule said Health Care for the Homeless' mobile units that conduct needle 
exchange do not go anywhere near any of those parks.

And Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez said he had city police look into any 
link between the needle-exchange program and discarded needles. That 
department reported back that the two were not related, Chavez said.

"I support needle-exchange programs. They have been proven effective," he 
said. "But if I had to balance them against the quality of life in a 
neighborhood, the neighborhood wins on that one."

Yntema said he has been getting plenty of complaints from people in his 
district. "The streets apparently sometimes look like a medical refuse 
facility," he said. "People and their children go for a walk and find 
needles in the street."

Yntema noted that Health Care for the Homeless distributed more than 
400,000 needles last year in the metro area. Even if a small percentage of 
them ended up tossed on the streets or in parks, that would be a lot, he said.

Rule said her program gets back 92 percent of the needles it gives out. 
There are a few reasons that needles may not be returned, she said. Users 
might toss them away when they see a police officer approaching; or they 
may have been arrested, imprisoned, moved out of town or otherwise been 
unable to give them back to the program.

The only time program participants get needles without bringing an equal 
number in exchange is when they sign up, Rule said. New participants get 30 
syringes - a one-week supply for the average heroin user or a three-day 
supply for the average amphetamine user, she said.

Rule said an ordinance spearheaded by Yntema late last year may have 
contributed to the problem of needles on the streets. By effectively 
banning the exchange from operating in the Health Care for the Homeless 
offices, Yntema forced the program to begin operating out of mobile units. 
That change sent the number of visits for needle exchanges plummeting from 
almost 800 monthly to only 336 last month, she said.

But the number of needles exchanged doesn't seem to have been affected. 
According to Phillip Fiuty of the state Department of Health, Health Care 
for the Homeless exchanged 180,000 needles during the first six months of 
this year, compared with 157,000 needles in the first six months of 2001. 
It moved from in-office exchanges to mobile units in mid-February, he said.

Don Torres, section head for HIV/AIDS/hepatitis programs with the health 
department, said discarded needles in parks and other haunts of drug users 
have always been a problem. "That's not something that has cropped up in 
the last couple of years," he said.

The needle-exchange program debuted in Albuquerque in February 1998. Last 
year, 650,000 needles were exchanged statewide, with about a dozen 
communities participating.

The number of accidental needle sticks - the real concern behind discarded 
needles - hasn't changed since the needle-exchange program was instituted, 
according to Dr. Steve Jenison, physician- administrator for the state's 
infectious diseases bureau.

He's the guy who gets paged when someone has been stuck with a used needle, 
and the number of calls has remained at five to 10 a year for the past six 
or seven years, he said.

Jenison said he can understand people's worries when they or a child gets 
stuck with a discarded needle, noting that he has been exposed himself in 
treating patients with AIDS. "Was I worried? You bet I was worried - I was 
real worried," he said.

But the risk of picking up HIV from getting stuck with a needle with fresh, 
infected blood on it is 3 in 1,000, he said. And fewer than 1 percent of 
the state's drug users are believed to have HIV, he said, making it 
unlikely that most discarded needles would have the virus on them.
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