Pennsylvania activists call for needle exchanges during opioid epidemic
A statewide group of public health activists Friday called on Pennsylvania lawmakers to expand their reaction to the opioid epidemic to include support for needle exchange programs.
Gov. Tom Wolf this week declared the opioid epidemic a public health disaster , a move that will relax some regulations for addiction treatment in hopes of slowing the drug overdose scourge that claimed 5,260 lives in Pennsylvania last year.
But Wolf’s declaration failed to address barriers to needle exchanges, which can provide clean needles to drug abusers. Public health experts say needle exchanges help prevent hepatitis C and HIV. The blood-bourne infections can be spread when intravenous drug users share or reuse needles.
In the 10-county area of Southwestern Pennsylvania alone, state records show hepatitis C infections soared from 335 cases in 2003 to 2,818 in 2014 as the opioid epidemic swept the region.
The Syringe Access Network of Pennsylvania, a group of public health activists and professionals from across the state, issued a statement Friday challenging state officials to act to allow the establishment of needle exchanges throughout rural Pennsylvania.
“We are heartened that Gov. Wolf has drawn on his authority as governor to proclaim a disaster emergency; however, the measures that have been proposed do not even begin to touch what is necessary to mount an effective public health response,” the group wrote.
They cited National Academy of Sciences recommendations that access to clean needles and lifting laws that prevent their distribution outside of Allegheny County and Philadelphia could play a major role in reducing harm to drug users as the state battles the drug epidemic.
The group said state laws banning needle exchanges outside of the two urban areas prevent Pennsylvania from accessing federal funds to support needle exchanges.
Public health activists from Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Johnstown, Reading, Lancaster and Harrisburg signed off on the message.
Debra Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or email@example.com or via Twitter @deberdley_trib.