October 11, 2011
While most states have not historically supported needle exchange programs to reduce HIV and hepatitis infections, California Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed two bills giving IV drug users more access to clean syringes. The first bill Brown signed allows for people to buy syringes at pharmacies without a prescription, and the second bill allows the state to approve needle exchange programs in high risk areas.
As the bill made its way to the governor's desk, the issue was playing out in real time in Fresno, which has one of the highest rates of IV drug use in the country.
In September, the Fresno County Board of Supervisors voted to back away from a plan to legalize a longtime needle exchange even though county health officials warned that new infections of HIV and hepatitis C were climbing.
Dr. Marc Lasher, who runs a free medical clinic in conjunction with the Fresno needle exchange, vowed to continue the program despite the county's ban.
"We're legal again!" Lasher said Monday. "This allows us to do what's right health-wise for our patients and our community, and we'll never have to ask permission ever again from the Board of Supervisors."
Back in June, TheBody.com reported on an L.A. Times staff editorial that supported SB 41, the bill that called for pharmacies to sell syringes without a prescription. The paper stated:
The department estimates that the sharing of syringes is the source of 3,000 cases of hepatitis C and 750 cases of HIV each year in California. Access to new syringes also helps prevent the spread of hepatitis B and other blood-borne diseases. It makes economic sense because it prevents diseases that are expensive to treat; customers pay for their own syringes, which cost about a quarter each.
The value of easy access to clean syringes has been known for at least a decade. A 2001 study published by the American Journal of Public Health examined 96 cities, 60 of which did not require a prescription for needles; the rest did. The rates of intravenous drug use in the cities were not significantly different, the researchers found, but the HIV rates in the cities that required prescriptions were twice as high.
The bill deserved to become law last year, and the same is true now. The Assembly should pass and Brown should sign SB 41.
Perhaps Brown was paying attention.
Kellee Terrell is the former news editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.
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