Public Health: Needle programs work

We agree our community would benefit from one

What a difference a change in leadership makes. That was clear during the Chico City Council’s Tuesday (Oct. 1) meeting when representatives of the Butte County Public Health Department gave a presentation related to a proposal for a local syringe access program.

Taking the lead on the subject was Danette York, Public Health’s new director, who’s been asked by various community leaders and groups to speak about such programs. Some of her first comments were salient: “There are extensive studies that show that these are an evidence-based tool—an effective tool—that helps address substance-use disorders and the opioid epidemic that we’re all suffering nationwide.”

That set the tone for the presentation by York and her colleagues: Dr. Andy Miller, the county’s public health officer, and Sandy Henley, an epidemiologist. York went on to say that she’s committed to providing accurate information using data and research on this program and any others her department is asked to discuss. Amen to that.

Public Health spoke generally about such programs but then homed in on the local angle. The backdrop is the Northern Valley Harm Reduction Coalition’s proposal to operate one—it’s awaiting approval and funding from the state.

One of the items Miller spoke to was the concern about potential needle litter. Reading right out of the California Department of Public Health handout, he said that hundreds of studies of programs conclude that they do not lead to increases in drug use, neighborhood crime or needle litter.

There’s a reason the CN&R recently requested that public health officials address the subject (see “Fear of the unknown,” Editorial, Aug. 8). Social media sites are ripe with misinformation based not on scientific data but rather anecdotal experiences in other communities and spread locally by fear-mongers.

The three health experts explained the differences between various types of syringe access models, the efficacy based on data, and some of the associated public health benefits. Among them, curbing the spread of communicable diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis C.

Syringe access programs, York noted, are not simply about giving away sterile needles. Required elements include safe disposal, referrals to mental health services, educational components related to treatment, as well as referrals to various programs, such as medication-assisted treatment (or MAT).

In the end, the health professionals’ recommendation was unequivocal. As Miller put it: “As a public health department, and as members of this community, it’s pretty clear, just from the data, that this city, this county would benefit from a program that provides these services.”