By Hilary Corrigan
Triplicate staff writer
Political and civic groups around the world on Friday called for communities to step up efforts to stop AIDS during annual World AIDS Day events.
Locally, that work takes place at the Del Norte County Health Department on Northcrest Drive.
Workers hand out health care brochures, condoms and tips on preventing the spread of HIV.
They also hand out free kits with cotton balls, alcohol swabs, drug-holding caps and instructions on sterilizing syringes with water and bleach an effort to keep injection drug users from catching and spreading the virus that leads to AIDS.
But the effort does not include a needle exchange program. The department has not yet researched whether or not such efforts would help prevent the spread of HIV in the area.
"Perhaps in the future," said department Director Gary Blatnick. "We're trying to follow the best practices that are out there."
The department lacks data showing a need for needle exchange efforts and effective results of similar efforts.
"We're interested in watching that in the future," said county Health Education Coordinator Denise Thorton. "I would love to see a needle, a syringe exchange."
Compared to other areas of California, Del Norte County has low numbers 20 reported AIDS cases and 16 reported cases of people living with HIV, according to data from the California Department of AIDS.
But the area's strong methamphetamine-using population presents a target for the disease.
"It's certainly one of the significant at-risk groups," Blatnick said.
A 2004 state law created a pilot program the Disease Prevention Demonstration Project that lets pharmacies sell up to 10 needles or syringes to customers without prescriptions, following approval from local county boards.
Those seeking syringes at the Medicine Shoppe in Crescent City cannot get syringes without prescriptions, except for diabetics who need materials for insulin, said Tom Nichols, a pharmacist and owner. Those customers must be over age 18 and sign their name and address.
Del Norte County lacks a large population of documented HIV cases that would call for needle exchange efforts, Nichols said.
"We're not the Bay Area and we don't have a problem like they do there," he said. "(It) just leads to other problems."
But to Steven Tierney, deputy executive director of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation a community group that pioneered the nation's first needle exchange more than a decade ago such programs can't come soon enough.
Those who inject methamphetamine probably share needles, Tierney said, noting the drug's social aspects. Needle exchanges would help block transmission of the disease that spreads quickly.
"It would be a preventative step," he said. "It's not too early. It's very timely."
Injection drug users now make up only 10 percent of new HIV infections each year in San Franciso, Tierney said. Needle exchange programs give health providers a way to reach people who have little contact with health professionals.
"Needle exchange is really a way of getting in touch with people," Tierney said. "That's a tremendous bridge to health care services. It tells them that somebody cares."
Scott Mitchell, program manager of Northcoast AIDS Project under the Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services, has found similar results.
In 2004, the county began taking part in a state program that trains drug users who come in for clean needles to distribute them, along with health information, to other users.
"It's gotten pretty successful. It's amazing, what a network we've developed," Mitchell said. "The needle exchange serves a multitude of purposes."
Distributors pass out needles, condoms, tips on nutrition, sexual health and the prevention of HIV and other diseases, including hepatitis C that plagues many HIV patients.
"We have a very large population of injection drug users," Mitchell said. "We have an enormous methamphetamine problem."
Mitchell has heard arguments against handing out needles and syringes. But he doubts that easy access to them boosts drug use or persuades people to start using.
"We would love it if everybody stopped using," Mitchell said, adding that free, clean needles at least prevent the spread of diseases among those who continue. "If people are going to be injecting, I want them to use clean ones, not dirty, second-hand ones."
The move also proves economical, Mitchell said. Experts list the lifetime medical cost to treat someone with HIV at about $600,000.
"It's much cheaper to prevent something than it is to treat it," Mitchell said.