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Health: Getting to the Point

County Council approves needle exchange program

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Allegheny County Council approved overwhelmingly a set of rules for the region's needle-exchange program Feb. 5, placing some restrictions on exchange sites and ensuring that council will be more involved in the process.

The head of the program says, however, that the new regulations will not encumber needle exchanges.

"We are incredibly pleased at Tuesday night's vote," says Renee Cox, executive director of Prevention Point Pittsburgh. "We're really excited to have the support and backing of council for this important health service."

In 2002, the county's Health Department authorized Cox's organization to be the region's lead agency in implementing a needle-exchange program -- an effort to prevent the spread of blood-borne infectious diseases. Prevention Point is a nonprofit that receives no government funding.

The Allegheny County Health Department's newly approved rules regulate the distribution of clean syringes, needles and biohazard containers to drug users. Sharing contaminated injection apparatus is "a significant factor in the transmission of infectious diseases, including HIV and Hepatitis B and C," according to the bill.

In July 2007, council rejected a similar proposal because its guidelines for distributing clean needles left the council out of the process.

Among other changes to the proposed rules, the new ordinance requires the Allegheny County Board of Health to notify council at least 30 days in advance of altering the operating procedures of the needle-exchange program, and 90 days before any new programs begin operation.

It also mandates that the Allegheny County Health Department shall under no circumstances approve any future needle-exchange sites "within 1,500 feet of any elementary, primary school, secondary school, licensed daycare facility or drug-treatment facility."

Notably, the Feb. 5 version of the bill is missing a previously included paragraph on participating drug users redistributing injection apparatus to non-enrolled users, which stated that injecting drug users could do so, but that they were encouraged to "make every effort to encourage non-participating [users] to enroll and participate ... personally."

Back in July 2007, Allegheny County Councilor Michael Finnerty (D-Scott Township) said that some councilors were alarmed by the practice of people picking up needles for drug users other than themselves.

Finnerty says that the new regulations effectively stop the process by limiting the number of injection apparatus distributed; the bill states that a user can receive "no more than a [number of injection apparatus] reasonably necessary for one month's worth of injections."

The old version of the rules allowed participating users to receive more than a month's supply after his or her first interaction with the program.

"One of our chief objectives is to prevent disease," says Finnerty, who chairs the Health and Human Services committee, "but the second part is to try to get these people to seek rehabilitation."

The bill passed council on Feb. 5 with little discussion and only one dissenting vote, Councilor Chuck McCullough (R-At-Large). Kevin Evanto, a spokesperson for county Chief Executive Dan Onorato, said Feb. 11 that the chief executive had yet to receive the bill and has until Feb. 15 to decide whether to sign it into law.

Cox says the biggest issue now facing Prevention Point is finding a stable source of funding – including support from the county, a prospect she sees as "feasible."

According to its Web site, Prevention Point's funding comes entirely from individual contributions and private foundations.

As it stands, the bill states explicitly: "Department funds shall not be used to support any activity of any Needle Exchange Program without prior approval as required by law."

Finnerty says he doesn't see county funding as a viable possibility.

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