County needle exchange program aims to lower the risk of disease

While the use of heroin and other opiates is on the rise in San Luis Obispo County, a local needle exchange program is getting some dirty needles off the streets and reducing the risks of disease, according to a new report by the county Department of Public Health.

On Tuesday, the county Board of Supervisors heard an annual report on the county Syringe Exchange Program, a service that accepts contaminated needles and sells back clean needles in a safe, no-questions-asked environment to protect users — many of them drug addicts — from spreading HIV, AIDS, and hepatitis C.

The local program came to be when the Board of Supervisors authorized a simpler version in 2006. That program was expanded in 2012.

County Health Officer Dr. Penny Borenstein said slightly more syringes have been collected each year than were distributed, an indication that fewer dirty syringes are in circulation, thanks to access to the program.

“That means we’re getting some of those syringes off the streets,” Borenstein said. In 2013, the program took in 37,265 syringes and distributed 36,700 to 434 participants.

Borenstein said 68 percent of participants in the program are male and 32 percent female. More than half have permanent housing, 23 percent live in temporary housing, 14 percent are homeless and 9 percent live with parents.

Of the 434 participants, 94 were new to the program, a 10 percent increase over 2012. Whether that meant a rise in popularity in the use of heroin and other injection drugs, or higher usage of the needle exchange program, was unclear.

Borenstein told the supervisors that, nationally, about 15 percent of newly-diagnosed HIV cases and more than half of hepatitis C cases can be attributed to intravenous drug use. Borenstein said she expects the pattern would be similar in San Luis Obispo County.

Studies have indicated that needle exchange programs can put a dent in those statistics. A 2002 study compared HIV prevalence rates in 103 cities and found those with a needle exchange program experienced an average 18.6 percent drop in HIV cases annually, according to a county staff report. Cities without programs witnessed an average 8.1 percent increase.

As a component of the local exchange program, all clients are offered voluntary HIV and hepatitis testing as well as substance abuse counseling.

In San Luis Obispo County and throughout California, AIDS cases are generally on the decline since a peak period between 1994 and 1996. Since 2007, there have been 48 new cases of AIDS in the county: 12 in 2007, five in 2008, eight in 2009, 11 in 2010, three in 2012 and nine in 2013.

The needle exchange program operates from 5:30-7:30 p.m. every Wednesday and 3-5 p.m. on the first Saturday of every month at the county Public Health Department, at 2191 Johnson Avenue in San Luis Obispo.

The program is operated by a nonprofit group, SLO Bangers, with grants through the county Preventative Health Grants Program and the San Luis Obispo County AIDS Support Network.