Source: The Herald (CT)
Pubdate: Fri, 7 Aug 1998
Author: Kelley O. Beaucar


NEW BRITAIN --- Despite the lack of state funding for a needle exchange
program to slow the spread of the HIV virus throughout the city, Health
Director Hudson Birden says he will still push for a program this fall.

"I'm going to submit a plan to my board Sept. 2," he said after speaking
before a meeting of the Mayor's Task Force on AIDS Thursday morning.

If he gets the go-ahead from the city's Health Commission in September,
Birden says he will approach the state for funding and ultimately seek
backing from Mayor Lucian J. Pawlak and the Common Council.

The Mayor's Task Force, which is made up of 20 active volunteers from
medical and social service sectors of the city, was supposed to take a vote
on support for the proposed needle exchange program Thursday, but declined
because of the absence of a least two members and because they would like
more information, said Deb Gosselin, task force chairwoman.

Birden, with the help of HIV/AIDS specialist Gail Ide at the department,
has been working on a proposal that would employ the services of the Human
Resources Agency of New Britain to supply clean needles to intravenous drug
users here. The practice, which is now operating in Hartford, Danbury,
Bridgeport, New Haven and New London, has been said to prevent the spread
of the virus by offering addicts the use of a clean needle and discouraging
sharing between users.

According to Beth Weinstein, head of the AIDS division of the state Health
Department, a study of the New Haven program revealed that the chances of a
intravenous drug user getting infected by the disease was down by

The programs are also credited with getting addicts, most of them heroin
users, off the streets and into treatment centers.

"In addition to giving clean syringes and taking dirty ones off the street,
it's important because they may help get people off the streets and into
substance abuse treatment as a result," she said.

Intravenous drug use is now on the rise to become one of the most, and in
some demographics, it is the most common mode of transmission for the HIV

Sharing dirty needles has caused more cases of HIV/AIDS in Connecticut than
ever before, said state officials. In 1996, 50 percent of the 1,110 new
full-blown AIDS cases were the result of intravenous drug use.

According to HIV counselors with the health department, there are at least
200 intravenous drug users in the city who need immediate prevention tools.

The state closed down a needle exchange program it was funding in
Willimantic in 1997 because the program there lost public support,
according to Weinstein.

While not tied directly with the program, complaints of stray syringes on
the streets caused the support to wane and operational problems at the
local level only added to the reasons the state pulled out, she said.

Still, the jury is not out on whether the idea of providing clean syringes
to heroin addicts throughout the city will be a source of bitter
controversy, much like the unsuccessful fight against the methadone clinic
downtown four years ago. While his task force continues to deliberate the
proposal, Pawlak has not yet addressed the concept publicly.

Mark Bernacki, president pro tem of the Common Council, has said he will
fight the establishment of a needle exchange program here, as he feels that
the suburban towns should practice a little regionalization and help with
the burden of drug abuse in the area. Alderman Tim O'Brien says he wants to
see the plan first, but will consider the proposal's potential benefit to
the community.

"Like all programs, I think the city's responsibility to preventing the
AIDS epidemic has to be based upon good scientific public health measures
- --- and I'll look at the plan," he said Thursday.

Birden says he is confident the evidence can support the idea that a needle
exchange would only benefit the cause of getting drug addicts and potential
victims of HIV/AIDS off the street.

"I think I have enough information to persuade some people that it's going
to be a benefit and would not contribute to any of the ills they believe it
will," he said Thursday.

- ---
Checked-by: Joel W. Johnson