TRENTON – A bill sponsored by state senators Joseph F. Vitale and Nia H. Gill 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 approved by the full Senate Thursday.
“Since its inception in 2006, New Jersey’s sterile syringe and needle exchange program has been a proven success,” said Vitale, D-Middlesex, a member of the Governor’s Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS and Related Blood Borne Pathogens. “Not only has the program been able to reduce the number of intravenous drug users who transmit serious bloodborne diseases such as HIV or Hepatitis C through the sharing of dirty needles, but it has provided drug users with access to treatment options for their addictions. In fact, 25 percent of participants in the exchange program have enrolled 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.”
“This legislation will help prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS and other bloodborne diseases in the entire state of New Jersey by making access to clean needles part of our comprehensive statewide strategy to combat this public health epidemic,” said Gill, D- Essex, Passaic. “Not only has the program been established as an effective tool to help reduce transmission rates of these diseases in the five cities with pilot programs, but it has provided those with drug addictions access to drug treatment programs and has encouraged more than a quarter of the participants to enter into treatment. It is now time to expand this program throughout the state.”
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 of age 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 a lifeline to escape a life of addiction by offering them access to resources and treatment,” added Vitale.
Vitale and Gill 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.
“The faces of HIV and AIDS patients are not anonymous faces in the crowd. They are our sons, daughters, parents, friends, neighbors and co-workers. They live in your community and mine. HIV and AIDS is an epidemic that affects all regions of the state, not just urban centers. By expanding this program statewide, we can begin to turn the tide on the transmission of these and other bloodborne diseases through the sharing of needles across New Jersey,” said Gill.
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 and Gill have 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. Both senators were prime sponsors of the original legislation that created the sterile syringe pilot program in 2006. Vitale recently 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 and to open the door for the New Jersey Division of HIV/AIDS, STD and TB Services to financially support municipal syringe exchange programs.
The bill was approved by the Senate with a vote of 25-12. It now heads to the General Assembly for further consideration.
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