Pubdate: Wed, 09 Dec 1998
Source: San Francisco Bay Guardian, The (CA)
Copyright: 1998 San Francisco Bay Guardian
Author: Angela Rowen
Bookmark: (Needle Exchange)


Alameda County Has An AIDS Emergency. So When Will It Fund Needle Exchange 

After her arrest, Guerriere entered a seven-month recovery program. "If I 
had gotten HIV, I don't think I would have gone into recovery," Guerriere 
told the Bay Guardian. "I would have been like, 'What's the point? I'm 
going to die anyway.' " Since getting clean, she has continued distributing 
needles, in defiance of state law -- volunteering at Needle Exchange 
Emergency Distribution (NEED) in Berkeley, where she's a student.

Now Guerriere wants Alameda County officials to show the same courage. San 
Francisco has funded needle exchange programs since 1991. Now that Alameda 
County's Board of Supervisors has declared the AIDS crisis in the African 
American community an emergency, activists want the county to put its money 
where its mouth is.

NEED distributes more than 5,000 clean needles to about 120 people a week 
in Berkeley. The nonprofit works closely with the Alameda County Exchange 
(ACE), which serves about 1,500 people a week at its three sites in Oakland 
and Fruitvale.

That's a lot -- but not enough when there are an estimated 10,000 IV drug 
users in the county. AIDS activists say they can't expand without funding 
from the county.

"We want the county to do what San Francisco did seven years ago -- to 
fully fund needle exchange," Bob Iversen, of ACT UP's East Bay chapter, 
said at a candlelight vigil on World AIDS Day last week.

Geoff Meredith is with the HIV Education and Prevention Project of Alameda 
County, which runs ACE. He says funding for syringes would put muscle 
behind the resolution declaring an AIDS emergency in the county's African 
American community, which the board passed Nov. 5.

"The declaration was a good gesture," Meredith told us. "But we're asking 
them to take the next step."

Until the board takes that step, money from Alameda County and cities 
within it can only go toward items for "harm reduction," such as alcohol 
swabs and bleach, used to clean needles, and condoms. Federal funding for 
needle exchange programs has been prohibited since 1988. While Berkeley's 
health department gives NEED $40,000 a year for such supplies, ACE, which 
exchanges three times as many syringes as NEED, only gets about $20,000 
from the county. The rest of the exchange's $90,000 budget comes from 
private donations.

According to Meredith, ACE is the largest needle exchange program in the 
country that doesn't receive direct local funding for needles. "Our success 
in reaching people has outstripped our funding," he told us. "And there's 
so many others that we don't reach. We estimate we reach about 15 to 20 
percent of IV drug users in the county."

A study by the U.S. Congressional Black Caucus earlier this year found that 
40 percent of new AIDS infections, 75 percent of those among women and 
children, are caused by dirty needles. While African Americans make up 18 
percent of the county's population, they make up 41 percent of its AIDS cases.

Meredith told us he hopes the county will be more willing to fund needle 
exchange under Gray Davis's administration. He hopes Davis will sign 
legislation allowing local governments to fund needle exchange programs -- 
legislation vetoed by Gov. Pete Wilson several times.

County supervisor Mary King says she doesn't anticipate much opposition to 
the idea. "It is a practical approach that doesn't increase the use of 
illegal drugs and just helps to spare some lives," she told us. Six federal 
studies have shown that needle exchange programs don't encourage drug use 
-- and cut the spread of HIV by a third.

Still, others on the board are wary. Supervisor Gail Steele, for one, says 
she'll need more convincing. "That could be quite an expenditure," she told 
us. "I would have to be convinced that it would be fair and appropriate to 
give all this money for this purpose and not for another, like [preventing] 
youth violence."

Activists insist needle exchanges save money in the long run. As David 
Modersbach of NEED told us, "Giving someone clean needles is a lot less 
expensive than treating a person with HIV."