TRENTON – A bill sponsored by state Sen. Joseph F. Vitale that would expand the state’s sterile syringe and needle exchange program to help reduce the prevalence of transmitted bloodborne diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis C through shared intravenous needles was advanced today from the Senate Health, Human Services and Seniors Citizens Committee.
“The sad reality is that too many people catch sometimes-fatal diseases from sharing dirty needles before they get the help they need to clean up their lives. HIV, AIDS, Hepatitis C and other bloodborne diseases are almost completely preventable in this day and age as long as people are aware of the risk factors and of the ways to prevent spreading them. A needle exchange is an imperative component of reducing transmission rates,” said Vitale, D-Middlesex, Chairman of the Senate Health Committee and member of the Governor’s Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS and Related Blood Borne Pathogens.
“The pilot program has had great success in helping to prevent the spread of bloodborne diseases by providing intravenous drug users with safe and sterile needles and providing access to rehabilitation programs, with 25 percent of participants enrolling in drug abuse treatment programs. I am pleased that we are able to make this program permanent and to allow all municipalities throughout New Jersey to establish needle exchanges.”
The bill, S-2001, would make permanent the “Bloodborne Disease Harm Reduction Act” – a 2006 law that created a needle exchange pilot program for six municipalities in the state. Additionally, the bill would allow any municipality throughout New Jersey to operate such a program.
The 2006 law allows municipalities to operate needle exchange programs directly or to contract with an AIDS service organization, a substance abuse treatment program, a public health agency or a licensed health care facility. A municipality’s syringe access program must provide sterile syringes and needles at no cost to consumers 18 years or older; offer information about the prevention of HIV, Hepatitis C and other bloodborne pathogens; provide referrals for HIV testing and drug abuse treatment programs; and collect data regarding the program. Atlantic City, Camden, Jersey City, Newark and Paterson are all currently operating needle exchanges through the program. In 2011, according to the state Department of Health and Senior Services, these programs dispensed 1.1 million clean needles.
The law was designed not only to prevent individuals within these communities from sharing contaminated needles, but also to: provide intravenous drug users with information and knowledge on the proper way to dispose of needles; and to offer counseling and referrals for drug abuse treatment programs and for social service options such as housing and employment. According to New Jersey’s Drug Policy Alliance, approximately 25 percent of the more than 10,000 participants in the sterile syringe access program have successfully enrolled in drug treatment programs.
“Opponents of the needle exchange program were concerned that this program would encourage intravenous drug use in New Jersey’s cities, but the results have shown that it has done the exact opposite. This program has not only provided people with access to clean, safe needles, it has also provided them with lifeline to escape a life of addiction by offering them access to resources and treatment,” added Vitale.
Senator Vitale noted that while the program has been successful in curbing the transmission of disease in the five municipalities currently running programs, a clean needle exchange could be beneficial in all parts of the state.
“Considering that rural Salem County has the highest proportion of women living with HIV/AIDS, followed by Essex, Passaic, Cumberland and then Monmouth, this is not a problem that is isolated to the urban centers. No area of New Jersey is immune from the devastation of drugs and HIV infection,” said Vitale.
According to a 2011 New Jersey Division of HIV, STD and TB Services Report, 35,841 people are living with HIV or AIDS in New Jersey and 22 percent of those acquired the disease through intravenous drug use. That number is down 5 percent since June 2007 – directly prior to the law’s enactment.
AIDS and HIV are not the only bloodborne diseases that are passed through contaminated needles. A January 2010 New Jersey Health and Senior Services’ Interim Report on the “Bloodborne Disease Harm Reduction Act” stated that after five years of injecting, as many as 90 percent of intravenous drug users are infected with the Hepatitis C virus – an infectious disease that destroys liver cells and can lead to cirrhosis of the liver.
Vitale has been on the forefront of sound public policies to provide New Jersey residents with safe and sterile needles to prevent the spread of bloodborne diseases. Most recently he authored legislation that allows pharmacies in New Jersey to sell hypodermic syringes and needles without a prescription.
The bill would appropriate $95,000 to the Department of Health and Senior Services to implement the program.
The bill now heads to the full Senate for consideration.
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