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Sale of needles eased

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By Allison M. Heinrichs
Saturday, Sept. 26, 2009

Pharmacists and health care organizations applaud a state law recently enacted to allow over-the-counter sales of hypodermic needles and syringes in Pennsylvania.

The Pennsylvania State Board of Pharmacy amended a law requiring a physician's prescription in order to obtain needles. The change, effective immediately, is aimed at reducing the spread of diseases, such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C, by sharing needles.

"Overwhelming scientific research has indicated that increased access to sterile syringes is an important component of infectious disease reduction and does not increase injection drug use," said Renee Cox, executive director of Prevention Point Pittsburgh, a nonprofit needle exchange program that submitted public testimony supporting the legislation.

Needle exchange programs reduce new cases of HIV by 75 percent, according to studies compiled by the Harm Reduction Coalition in New York City. Last year, Pittsburgh recorded 93 new HIV cases, according to the Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force.

No one spoke against the changes during a 30-day public comment period.

Programs such as Prevention Point Pittsburgh allow injection drug users to exchange used needles for clean ones. The Allegheny County Board of Health declared a public health emergency several years ago to allow the program to give out clean needles to people without prescriptions.

The program provides disease testing, counseling, overdose prevention and referrals to drug treatment programs. It is the only such program in Western Pennsylvania.

"The needle exchange programs are great because they're a way to offer concentrated services to people at one spot," said Stuart Fisk, manager of the Positive Health Clinic at Allegheny General Hospital. "The problem is for people who live in rural areas of the state where there's never going to be a needle exchange program. That's why it is so important that people can now get sterile needles from the pharmacies."

The Pennsylvania Pharmacists Association supported the changes, even though the version that passed sets no age restrictions and no limit on purchases. The association had wanted a requirement that purchasers be at least 18 years old and that no more than 30 needles could be purchased at a time.

"Our support for it was a little bit stronger with those limitations, but ... after hearing more about it, we agreed to still support it," said Pat Epple, executive director of the association, which represents 1,600 pharmacists statewide. "We agreed that it was the best situation for people to be using clean needles at all times -- not that we support drug abuse or anything like that."

The needles will not be placed on retail shelves and must be stored behind the pharmacy counter, where a pharmacist would distribute them.

Allegheny County Councilman Vince Gastgeb, R-Bethel Park, who had raised concerns in 2006 that Prevention Point Pittsburgh wasn't operating its needle exchange program legally since needles then were only available with a prescription. He said he had no criticism of the new state law and that it could perhaps allow for legal needle exchange programs in other counties.

It isn't just injection drug users who would benefit from easily obtaining sterile needles at the pharmacy.

"We've heard horror stories of people in senior high-rises who are diabetic," said Kathi Boyle, executive director of the Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force in East Liberty, which submitted public testimony supporting the amendment. "People will borrow their needles not to shoot drugs but to do their own insulin injections, and inadvertently contract a disease."

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