Pubdate: Thu, 30 Jan 2003
Source: Providence Journal, The (RI)
Copyright: 2003 The Providence Journal Company
Author: David McFadden
Bookmark: (Needle Exchange)


Legislators Want To Keep The State-Sponsored Health Van Out Of City Parks
And Away From Schools And Churches.

WOONSOCKET -- Two local lawmakers recently introduced a bill in the
General Assembly that would ban the distribution of needles and
syringes within 300 yards of parks, schools and churches, in response
to a state Department of Health-administered needle-exchange program
operating two hours a week beside a city park.

The legislators, who said they were philosphically opposed to giving
needles and other paraphernalia to intravenous drug users, said the
needle-exchange van, no matter how well intentioned, will lead to
trouble in the 15-acre World War II Veterans Memorial Park near the
city's downtown center.

"We just don't want it in a place where they are in such close
proximity to children and the elderly," Rep. Todd R. Brien, D-Dist.
50, who is also a Woonsocket police detective, said yesterday in the
park. "This could lead [drug users] attracted to the needle exchange
to commit a crime, turning to prostitution or breaking and entering to
support a habit. These people should be in treatment centers."

The needle-exchange van, designed to prevent transmission of HIV, AIDS
and other blood-borne diseases by allowing drug users to trade old
needles for new ones, and get syringes, alcohol swabs and condoms to
protect themselves from infection, has been going to the park since
November. The van is staffed by two employees of the ENCORE
(Education, Needle Exchange, Counseling, Outreach and Referral)
harm-reduction program of the health department's AIDS Care Ocean
State agency, which has run a needle-exchange program in Providence
for years.

Rep. David E. Laroche, D-Dist.49, who is also a city firefighter, said
yesterday that the needle-exchange van is luring "people with criminal
backgrounds" to a location that's supposed to be secure. "It's not
safe to bring drug users in here. There's three elderly high rises
within 200 feet of any entrance to this park."

But Paul Fitzgerald, chief executive officer of AIDS Care Ocean State,
said that when drug users come to the van to exchange needles,
outreach counselors work to get them into existing drug-treatment
programs, following a model that has succeeded in lowering AIDS and
HIV transmission across the country for years. Health workers in New
Haven, Conn., for instance, reported a roughly 40 percent drop in HIV
infections after starting the program in that city. (Officials with
the Rhode Island Department of Health AIDS program say that HIV
transmission among intravenous-drug users seems to be declining, but
there is not enough data yet to meet the standards of scientific evidence.)

Needle exchange is a way to offer outreach and engage intravenous drug
users into treatment, according to Fitzgerald. He said he was
"chagrined" but not surprised by the bill.

"Any public discussion of a needle-exchange program has always
involved controversy, no matter where you do it," Fitzgerald said,
adding that local implementation of the program is temporarily on hold
until a conference is scheduled with concerned local officials. "We're
brand new to that community. I think once we sit down with city
officials and talk, we'll reach a solution."

But Mayor Susan D. Menard was emphatic yesterday in expressing her
determination to have the needle-exchange van go elsewhere.

"I don't want them in Woonsocket, and I will do whatever's necessary
to get them out," said Menard, who was especially critical of having
the van stationed at the city park, which got a $800,000 upgrade
completed by the state two years ago. "Of all places, they put it in
that park. All this does is bring back problems."

Menard said offering the needle-exchange program at health clinics or
hospitals would be a far more appropriate setting than in a municipal

Public health officials argue that the program is a vital way to
curtail the spread of infectious disease, and that drug users need to
be counseled in a setting that offers some amount of

"There is a wealth of evidence that the most effective way to prevent
transmission of HIV and AIDS among drug users is to provide adequate
syringe access," said Dr. Josiah D. Rich, an infectious-disease
specialist with Miriam Hospital and Brown University who played a
leading role in getting the state's needle-exchange program started.
"This is a tremendously successful intervention, and has not led to
any rise of drug use."

He said some 1,500 people are enrolled in the needle-exchange program
out of the estimated 10,000 intravenous drug users in the state, which
he said illustrates that there is not enough geographic participation
in the program. It was recently established in Woonsocket and Newport,
and has been functioning in Providence since about 1994.

Rich said the opposition of Woonsocket officials and state
representatives to local implementation of the program is a classic
not-in-my-backyard take on the problem of intravenous drug users, who
bear a "terrible societal stigma."

"The fact that this [needle-exchange program] is there points out to
the mayor and other officials that there is a problem, but they would
prefer not to acknowledge it," Rich said. "It's not like [drug users]
are coming into Woonsocket from other areas. They're already there."
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake