Yolo County’s needle exchange program, active for one year, has generated some controversy this summer because of reports that used syringes were showing up in public parks.
Despite the concerns, the Yolo County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 earlier this month to allow the needle exchange to continue into its second year at a cost of $100,000.
The needle exchange program is designed to give sterile needles to injection drug users in exchange for their old and used syringes. The goal of the program is to reduce the spread of blood- and bone-transmitted diseases such as Hepatitis C and HIV, said Hinton.
The program works on a “one-to-one plus 10” syringe exchange system, meaning that the program will give 10 syringes to a new participant in the program and then exchange one new, sterile syringe for every old, used one brought back.
“This program has only had a year’s worth of time to grow,” said supervisor Mariko Yamada, who represents part of Davis. “We need to give the program time to sort out the problems.“
Yamada said she thinks the program is worthy of the county’s money.
“This is a public health and public safety issue,” Yamada said. “Any time we can use funds to reduce the scourge of the different diseases that are a result of dirty needles … I think is an appropriate use of public health dollars.“
Others say the problems are too great for the program to continue.
“My primary concern … is that there are 11,253 unaccounted-for needles out there and 150 people in the program,” said supervisor Matt Rexroad to the board. “The average user is responsible for 75 needles that are unaccounted for rolling around out there.“
Rexroad, who represents Woodland, has suggested going to a one-to-one needle exchange or putting the $100,000 into another program that has already proven itself, such as prenatal care.
“I don’t consider it leadership at all to transfer the burden of people who are behaving irresponsibly and injecting themselves with poison onto the people who are behaving responsibly,” he said. “We’re prolonging the inevitable by a small amount and that’s it. We’re spending 50 cents for every person in Yolo County to facilitate people putting poison into their body.“
While community members have voiced concerns about the presence of used syringes in public spaces, no injury or dangerous contact has been reported.
The needle exchange program is operated by two groups, Harm Reduction and Safer Alternatives Through Networking and Education. While SANE is funded by the county health department, Harm Reduction is fueled by a state grant, said Bette Hinton, Yolo County director of health, in her report to the board about the program’s work.
The SANE and Harm Reduction programs do most of their work through an intermediary person, called a satellite, Hinton said. The satellite collects the used needles and syringes from peers, friends or contacts and then takes them all to a needle exchange program where the Satellite receives clean syringes to take back to the users.
Satellites may be users, recovering addicts or people who have never tried an injected drug, said SANE director Karen Anderson.
“Syringe exchange works,” Anderson said. “The public health theory behind it is that you have an intervention to remove the vector of infection. Syringes carry the virus; if you remove them from circulation, you remove the virus they carry.“
Anderson said stopping the spread of HIV is one of her primary concerns.
“The epidemic is not under control – look at the worldwide pandemic,” she said. “The numbers are still high and spreading. This is still critical. If we aren’t out there doing the work the virus will continue to spread. When drug injectors get [HIV or Hepititis C] they spread it to non-injectors.“
Anderson said if the program continues to be supported, trust will build between her volunteers and the community, results will be easier to track, and the bumps in the program will start to smooth out. But the problem with syringes still remains.
According to Hinton’s report, roughly 50,000 needles have been returned, out of the 60,000 that have been distributed.
“A lot of those syringes are still in circulation,” Anderson said. “And plenty have been confiscated by police officers.“
The needle exchange program will continue to run for another year.
ALI EDNEY can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.