Orange County announces the opening of the Clean Needle Program in Santa Ana, receiving thousands of clean syringes in exchange for used ones. (Joe Mabel/Wiki Commons)
Last year a group of medical students from UC Irvine realized Orange County California did not have a clean needle program. So they decided to pair up with partners in the region, organize and submit a plan to the California Department of Public Health. At first they were first rejected, but after the community pulled together, support and funding arrived for the Syringe Exchange Program and Nonprescription Sale of Syringe.
These programs have been around since the 1970s with the first government approved facility in the Netherlands. It was created to help prevent the spread of diseases like AIDS, HIV and hepatitis C. Since then, the program has made its way to other countries helping thousands of people prevent spreading a life long illness.
The non-profit organization needed to find a location where users could go. The Santa Ana Civic Center in a mobile site made the most sense due to prevalence of HIV being in the city. The location also provides a safe haven for people on the streets and if they want to stop using there are resources for them at the location.
The California Department of Public Health’s office of AIDS reported 2012 that 117,553 people in California are living with HIV or AIDS, and roughly 15 percent of those are related to drug use. Under a new law that became effective in January 2015, pharmacists are now allowed to sell any amount of needles to an individual over the age of 18. According to the legislature, there is now no need for prescriptions to purchase the needles.
Not only does this center provide a safe haven for people using, it is a place where people have access to clean needles, provide a way for needles to be disposed of properly, testing for HIV and hepatitis C on site, referrals to health, housing, and treatment services and other harm reduction and safer-sex supplies and information if requested.
During opening weekend the site had 70 clients visit, took in over 800 used needles and distributed over 2,00 clean ones.
“Injection drug use leads to 9.1 percent of all cases of HIV in Orange County,” said Nathan Birnbaum, first-year medical student at UC Irvine and Orange County Needle Exchange Program organizer.
The people working there are 100 percent non-profit volunteers. It consists of medical students, parents or other family members, undergraduates and members of the community.
In California there are roughly 40 cities that already have this program, ranging from San Diego to San Francisco. In an interview for the L.A. Times one of the founding members of the program, Kyle Barbour, said he was shocked to find out that Orange County did not have a program like this.
“I’m from San Francisco, where needle exchanges are very common and widely acknowledged to be an important factor in stemming the HIV epidemic,” Barbour said. “We know that needle exchanges are safe, cheap and effective.”
The group hopes to achieve a safer community, improve public health, reduce medical costs and develop research. They also thrive on helping the people who need it.