Doctor know

So much drama in Sacramento politics lately. There was the supposed scourging of Oak Park by redistricting. Then the great chicken liberation of 2011. Instead of real issues, we’ve got our own little reality TV show—all shrill and fake and weirdly hard to look away from.

Mesmerized and a little depressed, Bites nearly missed the one thing that happened at city hall in the last couple of weeks that will actually make a difference in people’s lives.

Sacramento’s public health officer, Dr. Glennah Trochet came before the city council on August 30 to report that the city’s policy of allowing needle exchange programs and the sale of clean syringes at local pharmacies is saving lives.

The percentage of new HIV cases in Sacramento caused by injection drug use has dropped steadily since the programs were launched, from 20.4 percent in 2007 to just 12.7 percent last year.

“It means that access to clean syringes is working. As we expected,” Trochet told Bites.

Whoa. It’s almost as if science really is a good foundation for public policy. Who knew?

The doctor knew, of course. Back in 2005, Trochet spent months banging her head against a wall, trying to convince local government leaders to look at the evidence showing access to clean needles cuts down on disease and protects public health.

Everywhere Trochet went, she was followed by the same law-enforcement lobbyist who repeated the same mantra, access to clean needles is condoning and encouraging drug use.

“It’s like saying access to glasses increases the use of wine. It’s not true. What increases drug use is the access to drugs,” Trochet said.

She went to the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors, and to the city councils of Elk Grove, Rancho Cordova, Folsom, Citrus Heights and Galt. “They all turned me down. It was pretty depressing.”

But the next year then Sacramento City Councilman Ray Tretheway approached Trochet and asked for help putting together an ordinance allowing pharmacies to sell syringes without a prescription. It passed, and the next year, another ordinance was passed allowing needle exchange in the city of Sacramento.

Rachel Anderson executive director of the Sacramento Safer Alternatives through Networking and Education, one of the two local programs authorized to do needle exchange work in the city, says her organization makes about 1,200 contacts a year, distributing 400,000 clean syringes. That includes the City of Sacramento and Yolo County, which adopted a similar measure back in 2008. SANE also distributes information about drug rehabilitation and protection against STDs and other health information as they go.

None of it costs the city anything—other than some brain power and political will—it’s all supported by grants and private donations.

Trochet says the county doesn’t have the resources to investigate new Hepatitis C cases the way it does HIV. But she’s willing to bet the needle programs are making a dent in that disease as well.

“Glennah Trochet is a hero,” says Anderson. As for the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors: “We’ve dumped truckloads of data on them. We’re into the third decade of this epidemic. The evidence is just overwhelming. But we just get these stupid responses from the board.”

Trochet thinks she might be able to change some minds, “If I were staying.”

But she’s decided to step down from her job this month and go back to family medicine. And what of her quixotic campaign to bring the county supervisors into the 21st century? “I think it might be a good thing for my successor to try to do,” Trochet said.