September 27, 2001

Editorial: The Lesser Evil / Needle Exchange Program Can Save Lives

from Pittsburg Post Gazette 


Thanks to a life-saving decision by the Allegheny County Board of Health, the exchange of clean needles for intravenous drug users may soon come out from underground. The likely result would be a reduction in the spread of AIDS and hepatitis.

The board last week endorsed the development of a needle exchange program, a move that had been resisted by the Health Department years earlier. The change of heart came as evidence mounts demonstrating the value of such programs and it followed a summer of hearings in which 75 percent of the comments were favorable. County Chief Executive Jim Roddey has also voiced his support.

The Board of Health does not want to operate the program or fund it, but its endorsement should open up funding from foundations and individuals who had been reluctant to help finance an illegal operation. Under state law, it is illegal to possess a syringe without a prescription -- unless the county declares a health emergency. Philadelphia took that step years ago.

Lacking the declaration of a health emergency locally, a private organization called Prevention Point Pittsburgh has run an underground needle exchange program for some six years, distributing 6,000 needles a week. The project's organizers report that the number of intravenous drug users is more than twice that figure and believe that much more can be done.

The Board of Health will form a panel to set up policies and procedures, choose an administrator and decide whether it should be operated from a permanent site or a mobile unit. It seems logical that Prevention Point Pittsburgh would be a key player in the county's effort.
Some people continue to oppose providing an addict with the device that enables his addiction. But needle distribution can and should go hand in hand with information about health care, screening services and treatment. The clean needle that comes along with that pitch is simply a way to keep the addict alive until the treatment has a chance to work.