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Supervisors nix needle exchange

The Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors voted 4-0 against establishing a needle exchange program Tuesday night, despite the recommendation of the civil grand jury and county health professionals.

County board Chairman Tom Mayfield was not at the meeting. Supervisor Jim DeMartini acted as chairman.

The vote came in response to the grand jury's report recommending a needle exchange program to address the problems of hepatitis C and human immunodeficiency virus infections in the county.

The county's health officials, including health officer John Walker, Health Services Agency Director Mary Ann Lee and Behavioral Health and Recovery Services Director Denise Hunt, gave a presentation spelling out the history of hepatitis C in the county and efforts to control it.

The county had 519 cases in 2007, Walker said. Almost all were adults, most were covered by private health insurance, and many didn't know how they were exposed to the disease, he said.

Needle exchange programs are controversial, Walker noted, but have several benefits, including reducing the spread of hepatitis C and HIV, and bringing intravenous drug users in regular contact with health care providers who can help them avoid disease transmission.

Hunt said the program reduces the number of dirty needles on the street. The county's Advisory Board on Substance Abuse Prevention voted to support the program after a lively debate, Hunt said.

"I urge the board to consider this as a public health issue and not a drug abuse issue," she said. "I urge you to adopt the grand jury recommendation."

Lee said she agreed with the recommendation, but that the program should be run by a nonprofit community organization without using HSA funds.

Law enforcement officials, including Sheriff Adam Christianson and District Attorney Birgit Fladager, spoke against the idea, saying it would enable drug users to continue their addiction.

"All of the challenges we are faced with in Stanislaus County, the gangs, methamphetamine, crimes, all have elements of drug addiction," Christianson said. "A syringe exchange program enables people to continue with their drug addiction," he said.

Fladager said a needle exchange program sends a message to young people that drugs aren't so bad or that the county will take care of them if they become addicted.

Supervisors agreed with the law enforcement officials.

Supervisor Bill O'Brien said hepatitis C infections are a relatively small health problem for the county, compared with depression, obesity, heart disease and infant mortality. Because most patients are covered by private insurance, it's not a big financial issue for the county, he said.

"Then there's the human issue. Giving a drug user a clean needle is not the best thing for him. Illegal drug use has a risk, and making it safer promotes it," he said.

DeMartini thanked the grand jury for the report, but added, "Like many well-intentioned programs that don't work out, this will never work out and deliver the benefits promised."

Bee staff writer Tim Moran can be reached at tmoran@modbee.com or 578-2349.

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