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Allegheny County health board backs trial of needle exchange

Thursday, September 06, 2001

By Deborah Mendenhall, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The Allegheny County Board of Health yesterday endorsed development of a needle exchange program for intravenous drug users as a way to reduce the spread of AIDS and hepatitis.

Though the board isn't ready to finance the program, members agreed to form a panel to establish policies and procedures for a pilot program, select an administrator and pick either a permanent site or a mobile unit that could move from neighborhood to neighborhood.

A private organization has run an underground needle exchange program for several years, but the idea of a legal, county-sanctioned program drew strong support at three public hearings this summer and won the support of county Chief Executive Jim Roddey.

Dr. Bruce Dixon, county Health Department director, said he hoped the panel would be formed by the board's December meeting, or at least no later than March.

Some 75 percent of comments at public hearings this summer and written comments favored a program to supply clean needles to IV drug users, said Bill Smith, administrator of the county's AIDS program.

It's something that has already been done on a limited and underground basis for about six years through the volunteer efforts of Prevention Point Pittsburgh, a nonprofit organization.

But the county's backing would enable that group, if it is selected to head the pilot program, to receive funding from sources that are reluctant to give to an illegal activity, said the group's co-founder, Stuart Fisk, a registered nurse and HIV/AIDS specialist.

State law prohibits possession of nonprescribed syringes. But other communities, like Philadelphia, have declared intravenous drug use a public health emergency, exempting the programs from the state law, and instituted needle exchange programs run by the public health departments.

Allegheny County board members would be willing to declare a public health emergency, but don't want to see the Health Department operate the program. The consensus was the department would regulate but not fund a pilot program. Board members agreed that drug counseling and HIV testing should also be included.

Fisk said Prevention Point currently distributes about 6,000 needles per week to people who come from about 40 Pittsburgh neighborhoods and from as far away as Johnstown. He said that number would drastically increase with county backing. In 1997, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that Pittsburgh had about 13,000 IV drug users, he said.

"We know there are many more today," he said.

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