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Needle exchange program starts, with county's blessing

Tuesday, March 26, 2002

By Deborah Weisberg

After years of underground distribution, clean needle exchange volunteers will begin supplying addicts openly and legally on April 7 in the parking lot of the Allegheny County Health Department in Oakland.

 
 

More info

Call Prevention Point Pittsburgh at 412-247-3404.

   
 

Prevention Point Pittsburgh, which was authorized by the Health Department two weeks ago to operate a yearlong needle exchange pilot program, plans to distribute clean needles in the parking lot at 3333 Forbes Ave. from 12:30 to 2 p.m. every Sunday in April, said Stuart Fisk, a registered nurse and co-founder of the group. It's not known whether that will be a permanent location.

Though the Health Department has always resisted such a program, it finally sanctioned needle exchange last year in the face of mounting evidence that giving IV drug addicts an alternative to sharing used needles helps stem the spread of HIV and AIDS and the more rampant hepatitis C, another blood-borne pathogen that can lead to serious liver disease. It chose Prevention Point Pittsburgh because of its experience with the underground effort since the mid-1990s, but provided no funding.

The distribution and use of non-prescription needles remains illegal in Pennsylvania; however, counties can declare states of health emergency to override state law, as Philadelphia did years ago. Allegheny County followed suit last year.

It's not know whether addicts will feel comfortable exchanging openly, especially outside their own neighborhoods, Fisk said. The group will continue to deliver needles to "shooting galleries" in the Hill, McKeesport and other communities.

But the county sanction opens up the operation to more funding, which has always been difficult to attract because of its underground status. Prevention Point Pittsburgh also will be able to provide more services, such as disease testing, Fisk said.

Last week, the Jewish Healthcare Foundation awarded Prevention Point Pittsburgh a $30,000 two-year grant, said Nancy Zionts, senior program officer.

"The green light by the county made it comfortable for us to consider the grant." The foundation administers $2.2 million in state and federal funds for HIV/AIDS services and prevention, in accordance with priorities set by the Southwestern Pennsylvania AIDS Planning Coalition.

"We know that every time a user shoots drugs with a clean needle, it prevents the spread of HIV and hep C," said Barb Feige, the foundation's HIV/AIDS program director. "The hep C situation here is alarming."

Prevention Point Pittsburgh distributes about 6,000 syringes, other drug paraphernalia and condoms each week on an annual budget of about $180,000, Fisk said. A year ago, it hired a full-time coordinator and would like to add more staff.

"We hope to hire a case manager, someone who could work getting exchangers into methadone treatment, helping them with health care, and housing ... being their advocate."

Fisk also wants to do more testing and treatment referral. When it worked last year with New York City's Beth Israel Institute for Chemical Dependency to field test drug users for disease, Prevention Point Pittsburgh found that 90 percent of roughly 200 "hard exchangers" had hepatitis C, a figure that surprised even Fisk.

"I would have expected 70 percent, but 90 is pretty shocking," he said. "You expect it with older drug injectors, who've been around the block and have been injecting longer. But, we saw it among younger injectors, so it is happening early on, too."

These are the sort of statistics that the county has not been able to gather because HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C were not reportable diseases in the county until last year. Prevention Point Pittsburgh will be able to gather accurate data because it interacts directly with drug users.

Deborah Weisberg is a free-lance writer who covers health issues.

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