Pubdate: Wed, 17 Feb 2016
Source: Orange County Register, The (CA)
Copyright: 2016 The Orange County Register
Author: Jenna Chandler


A group of volunteers plans to give away clean syringes to drug 
addicts Saturday afternoon at the Santa Ana Civic Center, launching a 
weekly effort - the first of its kind in Orange County - to prevent 
the spread of HIV and hepatitis C.

Both diseases are commonly spread among users who share needles along 
with the "cookers" and "cottons" used to dissolve and filter drugs. 
Sterile supplies are scarce in Orange County, said state health 
officer Dr. Karen Smith.

Volunteers from the nonprofit Orange County Needle Exchange Program 
will set up behind a folding table near City Hall in an area where 
hundreds of homeless people gather.

"We are ecstatic," said founder Kyle Barbour, a 27-year-old UC Irvine 
medical student who sought for about a year and a half to start the 
program. "The time has really come."

His group's first application with the California Department of 
Public Health was denied in June because of inadequate funding and 
opposition from neighbors, city staffers and the police chief over 
the program's proposed placement at the LGBT Center OC, arguing it 
was too close to an elementary school.

With more funding and a new location, the needle exchange program won 
approval Thursday. Of the 100 public comments the state received, all 
were supportive.

In the approval of the group's application, Smith said, "There is 
significantly less access to sterile syringes in Orange County than 
in other California counties of comparable size."

About three dozen other needle exchange programs operate across the 
state, including in Los Angeles, Ventura and San Diego counties.

Starting this week and continuing from noon to 3 p.m. every Saturday 
through Feb. 11, 2018, the Orange County volunteers will swap up to 
20 dirty needles per person for clean ones.

Barbour's group will also test for HIV and hepatitis C, distribute 
condoms, and make referrals for treatment, housing and health 
services. By handing out condoms they can help keep users from 
passing infection to their sex partners and into the general population.

It's a model inspired by a "bearded biker" named Dave Purchase who, 
according to the New York Times, began handing out needles, bleach, 
cotton swabs, mittens and cookies to heroin users in downtown Tacoma, 
Wash., in the summer of 1988. His street-corner operation is believed 
to be the first exchange program in the nation.

The Orange County Health Care Agency estimates about 7,000 residents 
are living with HIV. It is unknown how many residents here are 
diagnosed with hepatitis C at any given time, but estimates are in 
the thousands, a spokeswoman said.

"Our voicemail has missed calls almost every day. We get emails from 
people every other week asking for our services, saying they're 
desperate," Barbour said.

"There's no way (our program) could serve everyone, but you have to 
start somewhere," he said. He wants the county to pitch in money, 
staffing and support for additional locations to reach more people. 
But, he said, helping people who inject drugs isn't politically popular.

The Health Care Agency has no plans to help coordinate an expansion, 
spokeswoman Jessica Good said.
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