Ventura County Approves Needle Exchange Program
Ventura County, Calif.'s, Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 yesterday to declare a county medical emergency and start a needle exchange program, the Los Angeles Times reports. Dr. Robert Levin, medical director of the county Public Health Department, said the needle exchange would "save lives and reduce the amount of money spent on treating those with these often fatal diseases." Since 1994, 1,467 Ventura County residents have been diagnosed with hepatitis C and 626 with hepatitis B. Since the mid-1980s, 811 have been diagnosed with AIDS, with an estimated 1,000 to 5,000 residents infected with HIV, Levin added. According to Levin, 50% of the county's intravenous drug users have hepatitis B or C, and 19% of county men and 45% of county women with AIDS contracted the disease by injecting drugs. Although supervisors struggled with their "personal feelings" that the program would permit people to continue to abuse drugs, the majority agreed that "public health concerns come first." Supervisor Frank Schillo cast the single dissenting vote, saying, "I think this helps to continue the threat to the community and to continue the use of drugs. It needs to be tied to a specific program of treatment." But Board Chair Kathy Long said that she did not believe a needle exchange program would make people drug addicts, instead calling the program a "prevention tool." District Attorney Mike Bradbury and the county Law Enforcement Coordinating Committee said that "addicts would share needles with or without the program," but agreed not to oppose the program unless it becomes "a threat to public order or safety." They said that they would "push to shut [the needle exchange program] down" if it threatened public safety. The program, set to launch in March, will be operated by the not-for-profit Rainbow Alliance. In addition to clean needles, the alliance will give drug users medical information and AIDS tests when requested (Kelly, Los Angeles Times, 12/20).This is part of the KHN Morning Briefing, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.