Pubdate: Wed, 19 Feb 2003
Source: Pekin Daily Times, The (IL)
Copyright: 2003 Pekin Daily Times
Author: Robert Merkin
Bookmark: (Needle exchange)


Elizabeth Wehrman's arrest for possessing a hypodermic needle ("Needle
Exchanges - Point of Controversy," Daily Times, Feb 8-9) is a critical
moment for Pekin, whose citizens and public officials must now decide which
of two paths to take: A path proven to lead to more HIV/AIDS and hepatitis,
or a path proven to reduce the spread of these diseases.

Yale University School of Medicine has provided scientific testing and
support for New Haven, Conn.'s clean needle exchange since 1990. Within the
first year of testing used needles collected by the exchange, Yale's study
had firmly established that:

* As the number of needles in circulation rises, the level of HIV infection
goes down.

* The longer a needle is in circulation, the more likely it will come back
HIV positive.  In other words, communities without clean needle exchanges
guarantee significantly higher rates of HIV transmission.

* Among needle exchange participants, there was a one-third reduction in new
HIV infections (Yale Medicine Magazine, Summer 2001).

Law-enforcement policies that forbid clean needle exchanges litter the
streets, alleys, parks and playgrounds with haphazardly discarded needles
with known high levels of HIV and hepatitis infection. Children and citizens
in no way involved with needle drug use are thus placed at high risk of
potentially fatal infection unnecessarily.

Exchanges do not just distribute clean needles and safely collect and
dispose of dirty needles.  Needle exchange workers are the healthy
community's street-level outreach to the needle drug using community.
Exchange workers steer addicts to medical rehabilitation resources, and
provide addicts with health information to keep them alive, as healthy as
possible, and to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis until the
addict seeks help to overcome his or her addictions.

In a community that outlaws a clean needle exchange, needle drug users get
their health resources and information exclusively from other users and from
drug dealers/

Though Pekin Deputy Chief of Police Ted Miller claims Ms. Wehrman's needle
exchange clients are "the drug dealers here in town," they are in fact the
sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers of Pekin's citizens.

Far more to the point, they are Pekin's needle addicts at high risk of
becoming infected and spreading infection to others.

As Pekin's residents consider police opposition to a clean needle exchange,
it is extremely important that they recognize the police have no
professional training in medicine or public health, and that zero-tolerance
law-enforcement policies have been a component of Pekin's increase in needle
drug use and addiction.

Ms. Wehrman should not be prosecuted.

Pekin's doctors, nurses and public health officials should organize to
support her efforts to establish a clean needle exchange in Pekin.

Local law enforcement should also work with Lifeguard rather than try to
criminalize it -- as local police have worked closely and cooperatively with
my city's clean needle exchange for the past eight years.  We are all far
healthier and more free of needle addiction than we would have been without
this important program.

Robert Merkin is a resident of Northampton, Mass.
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