Public Opposition Leads Westport, Mass., Board To Reverse Decision on Needle-Exchange Program
The Westport, Mass., Board of Selectmen on Thursday unanimously reversed a decision they made on Monday to authorize a needle-exchange program to help prevent the spread of HIV among injection drug users in the area, the Boston Globe reports (Abel, Boston Globe, 4/29). The town had been the first in Massachusetts outside of the Boston area to authorize needle exchange as a method of preventing the spread of bloodborne diseases. In Westport -- which has a population of 14,000 -- 43% of HIV/AIDS cases can be traced to injection drug use. In addition, the town is located between the larger cities of New Bedford and Fall River, both of which are confronting simultaneous epidemics of illegal drug use and HIV. Two-thirds of HIV cases in New Bedford and 58% of cases in Fall River between 2001 and 2003 were attributed to sharing needles -- percentages that are substantially higher than the 25% state average. However, both New Bedford and Fall River have rejected needle-exchange programs (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 4/28).
The board's original decision to authorize a needle-exchange program in Westport "ignited a firestorm" of public protest, the Globe reports. As a result, the board on Thursday voted unanimously to reverse the decision and voted 3-2 to never allow a needle-exchange program in the town, according to the Globe. "There was fear, there was anger," board Chair Elizabeth Collins said, adding, "It was not right we didn't engage the town in debate. I take full responsibility for not being more aggressive in publicizing it." However, Collins, who is a registered nurse, said that she does not regret her vote to authorize the needle exchange, according to the Globe. "I believe in needle exchange very strongly," Collins said, adding, "I believe it saves lives. This is not an epidemic; it's a pandemic. The idea was to back off now and raise public awareness. We cannot even do that now." Collins said that it is possible that the board could approve a needle-exchange program in the future, according to the Globe. Board member Richard Tongue said that he was "disappointed" by the public protest of the program, according to the Globe. But Tongue said he voted to ban any future needle-exchange programs because he "just didn't think the town would really ever be ready" for such a program. Nancy Paull, a Westport resident and CEO of Stanley Street Treatment and Resources, which would have run the needle-exchange program, said, "I had read about mob mentality, and for the first time in my life I saw a mob," adding, "There was threatening behavior. There was screaming. There were slurs. It wasn't public pressure, it was mob pressure" (Boston Globe, 4/29).