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Ventura County

County to Extend Needle Exchange Program to Santa Paula

Health: The project started last year in Ventura is an effort to stem the spread of blood-borne diseases.

September 03, 2002|AMANDA COVARRUBIAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Health-care volunteers soon will begin exchanging new needles for used ones brought in by drug users in Santa Paula, as the Ventura County Health Care Agency expands its year-old syringe replacement program.

The move into Santa Paula is part of an effort to take the program countywide, where an estimated 905 to 1,460 residents are thought to be infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, officials said. The program's expansion was unanimously approved last month by the county Board of Supervisors.

Although Santa Paula Police Chief Bob Gonzales said he is philosophically opposed to handing out needles to drug users, he told county health officials that he would support their effort.

"Being a law-and-order person, I don't support that we're going to give people needles to further their addiction," Gonzales said last week. "My job is to see that we eliminate the substance abuse altogether.

"But I have to be realistic. The fallout effect is that you pass on diseases with dirty needles, and those diseases can be spread to loved ones, family members and maybe even some of my police officers who have to deal with these people."

The county started its needle exchange program last year in Ventura, where 5,355 syringes were turned in from September 2001 to May 2002, health officials said. A total of 4,735 needles were given out, "resulting in a net 620 fewer needles that can be found in parking lots, parks or other places that could be hazardous to the public," Dr. Robert Levin, the county's medical health director, wrote in a report to the board.

The needle exchange site in downtown Ventura is open for two hours a week and is staffed by volunteers, many of them former addicts, from the Ventura County Rainbow Alliance. Needle exchange volunteers saw 381 clients in eight months, 16% of them homeless, Levin reported.

Levin and other health officials said the number of Ventura County residents infected with blood-borne diseases is rising. Last year, 39 cases of AIDS were reported, as were 135 cases of hepatitis B and 625 of hepatitis C. By May of this year, there were 10 additional cases of AIDS, 100 more of hepatitis B and 278 more of hepatitis C.

About 16% of Ventura County men with AIDS reported using drugs intravenously, while 27% of women infected with the virus said they used intravenous drugs, such as heroin and crack cocaine.

In addition, Levin reported, a survey conducted two years ago of homeless people in Ventura County found that 27% tested positive for hepatitis C.

"Hepatitis B, C and HIV are blood-borne diseases that continue to be transmitted in the county and take a large toll on the health of individuals and the community, and contribute to the increasing cost of medical care," Levin wrote in persuading supervisors to expand the needle exchange program.

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