Fitchburg, Mass., Turns Down State Needle-Exchange Program Grant
The Gardner Visiting Nurse Association in Fitchburg, Mass., has rejected a $10,000 state grant to educate city residents on the benefits of needle-exchange programs to reduce HIV and hepatitis C transmission among intravenous drug users, making it the only program in nine "targeted" cities to reject the state's offer, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette reports. The city previously has rejected the general notion of exchange programs in "resounding fashion," through a "unanimous" vote of the City Council and a "strongly worded" letter to state Sen. Richard Moore (D), chair of the Legislative Committee on Health Care and a supporter of needle-exchange programs. Fitchburg Mayor Mary Whitney and members of the City Council say that a needle-exchange program would "harm the city's image" and has "never been scientifically shown to prevent HIV/AIDS." They also say that exchange programs have been shown to "actually encourage drug use." Moore countered that the council does not have the "facts on its side" and does not "care to learn the truth" about needle exchange. He cited a March 2000 federal report by Surgeon General David Satcher that said the "scientific evidence accumulated to date provides a basis on which municipalities that are heavily affected by an HIV epidemic driven by injection drug use should consider syringe-exchange programs as a tool for the identification, referral and retention of active users of injection drugs into these services, as part of a comprehensive HIV prevention plan." He also cited studies conducted in Portland, Ore., and Baltimore, Md., that found that neighborhoods with needle-exchange programs had fewer "improperly discarded" needles than those without such programs. Moore invited the Fitchburg officials to testify before his committee at a public hearing on a proposed needle-exchange bill on June 11, adding that the council's resolution does a "disservice to the people of Fitchburg unless the council is prepared to support some other program or programs that would reduce the spread of HIV ... and hepatitis C in the city" (Nangle, Worcester Telegram & Gazette, 4/23).
Allegheny County, Pa., Contemplating Program
The Allegheny County, Pa., Health Department will hold three public hearings on needle-exchange programs as it contemplates overturning a regulation that makes such programs illegal in the county, the Associated Press reports. The department is reconsidering the regulation because the rate of HIV infection among heterosexual drug users is nearly equal to the HIV infection rate among homosexuals, spokesperson Guillermo Cole said. Fifty-nine county residents tested HIV-positive last year; 18 were heterosexual drug users, while 21 were homosexuals. The "underground" group Prevention Point Pittsburgh, which currently distributes approximately 6,000 syringes a week in violation of the law, says that it could reach even more people if it was allowed to advertise, adding that any "official sanction" would benefit its work. Any needle-exchange plan would also have to be ratified by the County Council and County Executive Jim Roddey, who has said he wants to "review public comment" before deciding on the proposal. The first hearing is scheduled for May 12 (Associated Press, 4/21).