West Pennsylvania Needle Effort Is Under Scrutiny
April 4, 2006
Legislation recently proposed by an Allegheny County councilmember to determine the legality of a needle-exchange program (NEP) could end up shutting it down.
For four years, the nonprofit Prevention Point Pittsburgh has operated with the Health Department's endorsement, distributing clean needles in order to prevent blood-borne diseases among intravenous drug users (IDUs). Currently, IDUs enter the Health Department through a back entrance, present an identification number, and get sterile syringes in exchange for their container of used syringes.
Shared needles are responsible for 20 percent of HIV infections, and almost all hepatitis C infections among IDUs, according to CDC. NEPs operate in many cities nationwide, including Philadelphia. However, state law bars giving syringes to drug users and classifies needles as drug paraphernalia, said Vince Gastgeb, the councilmember sponsoring the legislation.
"As a nonprofit, Prevention Point Pittsburgh cannot just pass out needles," said Gastgeb. "What's legitimizing them is the health board." He expects his bill to be considered this summer. Even if it passes and the program is shuttered, the council could immediately pass a law authorizing the NEP, he said.
In 2001, the Allegheny County Health Department unanimously approved Prevention Point's NEP operation, declaring that high rates of hepatitis C and HIV constituted a public health emergency. A subsequent rise in hepatitis C cases -- from 149 in 2002 to 393 in 2005 -- was the result of more testing, said Renee Cox, the NEP's executive director.
Prevention Point Pittsburgh said it has enrolled about 3,000 clients since the NEP began in 2002, resulting in a 64 percent drop in clients' needle-sharing. Most of the NEP's $215,000 budget -- all private funds -- goes to counseling, housing aid, overdose prevention, drug treatment and health care referrals.
04.03.06; Associated Press
This article was provided by CDC National Prevention Information Network. It is a part of the publication CDC HIV/Hepatitis/STD/TB Prevention News Update.