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Needle exchange program running smoothly

Tuesday, June 04, 2002

By Deborah Weisberg

There have been no protests. No waving of placards. No disruptions.

The first legal needle-exchange program in Allegheny County has gone smoothly with little fanfare during its first six weeks of operation, according to leaders of Prevention Point Pittsburgh.

Since April 7, the volunteer, nonprofit organization has set up tables between 12:30 and 2 p.m. each Sunday in the back parking lot of the Allegheny County Health Department in Oakland to hand out the free needles, bottle caps for "cooking" drugs, alcohol prep pads and condoms.

And the public forum has opened up new outreach opportunities. A certified HIV tester is offering free counseling and HIV/AIDS testing. This has been provided by the Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force and the Partnership for Minority HIV/AIDS Prevention.

In addition, the Staunton Farm Foundation recently approved a $39,600 grant that will enable Prevention Point Pittsburgh to hire an outreach worker to help drug addicts find medical and rehabilitation services and housing and to meet other needs.

"We felt like people who cared enough about exchanging needles would be most likely to accept help from an outreach worker," said Joni Schwager, Staunton Farm foundation manager and program officer.

"It's a pilot for this foundation, but we're a foundation that likes to take risks on new programs."

The foundation, which funds projects in behavioral health and substance abuse, had waited for the Allegheny County Health Department to approve the public exchange program before providing funding.

That approval came late last year, when the department declared a public health emergency because of the spread of blood-borne diseases -- such as HIV and the more rampant hepatitis C -- through infected needles. The board had held three public hearings, receiving mostly support for legalizing the program.

It is still illegal to distribute and use non-prescription needles in Pennsylvania; however, counties can get around that by declaring a public health emergency, as Philadelphia did years ago.

The Health Department selected Prevention Point Pittsburgh to operate the public exchange as a pilot for a year. For six years, the group had distributed -- illegally -- about 6,000 needles a week directly to shooting galleries and to individuals in the Hill District, McKeesport and other areas.

The group continues to make many of those deliveries each week.

Although response varies at the public exchange, the total number of needles distributed each week remains fairly stable, said group coordinator Alice Bell.

"I'd say it's averaging between 5,000 and 6,000, though the number has varied over the six weeks.

"Any time you change patterns of distribution, you can expect to lose about half the people, though they gradually come back," said Bell. "We anticipated a drop, but most of the people who were [using] the program before are now coming to the Oakland site."

Although the Health Department provides no public money for the effort, it does dispose of the contaminated needles by sterilizing them and dumping them in a biohazardous landfill, said spokesman Guillermo Cole.

Funding for Prevention Point Pittsburgh comes from individuals and donations from foundations such as Staunton Farm, the Three Rivers Community Fund, the Maurice Falk Medical Fund and the Jewish Healthcare Foundation.

Its operating budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 is $180,000, Bell said.

While the Health Department parking lot was selected only as a pilot site, it has worked so well that Prevention Point Pittsburgh has no plans to move.

"Eventually, we'd like to have an indoor site," Bell said.

The Health Department will evaluate the public exchange after its first year to determine if it will continue.

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

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