Ventura County, Calif., Public Health Department Recommends Needle Exchange Program
To curb the number of HIV and hepatitis C infections, the Ventura County, Calif., Public Health Department is recommending that the county Board of Supervisors implement a needle exchange program, the Los Angeles Times reports. Public Health Officer Robert Levin said he plans to ask supervisors to declare a county emergency, which is the only way local officials can legally begin a needle exchange program. Levin "conservatively estimates" that such a program would prevent three to eight cases of HIV and six to 20 cases of hepatitis C infection per year. Supervisor John Flynn said he would support the program because the "issue is one of public health." Flynn added, "We've taken too many things and shoved them into the criminal justice area, when they're really health matters." However, Supervisor Frank Schillo said there was "little" that would convince him to support the program. He said, "It doesn't sound like much good to me except facilitating [drug addicts'] habit. We're talking about crime problems in communities, whether they use clean or dirty needles." The Law Enforcement Coordinating Committee, a coalition of police chiefs and representatives from the district attorney's and sheriff's offices, said they will not fight the program, despite a report by District Attorney Michael Bradbury that says "addicts will continue to share needles, regardless of the program." However, the committee has vowed to "shut down" the needle exchange if it becomes "a threat to public order or safety," the Times reports.
Jumping on Board
If approved, the program is expected to begin in March at sites around the county. Elsewhere in the state, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Santa Barbara currently operate needle exchange programs, and the Ventura County program would be modeled after the Santa Barbara effort, which distributes nearly 60,000 needles annually. According to Levin, Ventura County has documented 811 AIDS cases since the mid-1980s, with an additional 1,000 to 5,000 HIV infections. Since 1994, 1,467 hepatitis C cases and 626 hepatitis B cases have been diagnosed in the county (Surman, Los Angeles Times, 12/18).