Orange County’s lone needle exchange program is seeking approval to reopen as a mobile unit, according to OC Needle Exchange Program (OCNEP) board member and UC Irvine School of Medicine student Nathan Birnbaum.

The proposed mobile unit would operate in one city per day on weekly rotation from 10am to 5pm in industrial areas of Anaheim, Santa Ana, Costa Mesa and Orange. 

Santa Ana shut down the program in January. 

Officials said once the California Department of Public Health certifies the mobile needle exchange program, it can begin again without needing approval from city governments

OCNEP’s goal for the mobile unit is to provide clean injection supplies as well as free STD prevention and testing services, and to avoid leaving littered needles in residential areas.

“In order to be effective, OCNEP needs to move around,” said Birnbaum. “Depriving intravenous drug users who are at high risk of infectious disease is dangerous. By shutting the needle exchange down, the city has made it more likely for people to litter their needles.”

Littered syringes in the Santa Ana Civic Center, where the program operated on Saturday afternoons since its founding in 2016, was the reason city officials closed it in January. The move left Orange County as the largest county in the state without a needle exchange program.

Meanwhile, the county’s rise in needle-transmitted infections continues unabated; public health experts warn that infections will worsen as long as the exchange is dormant.

According to data from the California Department of Health, Orange County saw a 201.2% increase in cases of chronic Hepatitis C from 2011 to 2015. This rate of increase, which disproportionately afflicted males aged 15 to 39, was higher than rates over the same period in Long Beach, Pasadena, and Los Angeles.

Data from the OC Health Care Agency estimated 7,375 total cases of HIV in Orange County in 2017. Santa Ana showed the highest rates of HIV infection, with 19 people out of 100,000 becoming infected in 2017.

“When you look at how intravenous drug use connects to HIV, about 9% of HIV diagnoses in the county are attributed to intravenous drug use. But in Santa Ana, 15% of infections are caused by intravenous use,” Birnbaum said.

Philip Yaeger, executive director and CEO of Radiant Health Centers, Orange County’s premiere AIDS resource and OCNEP partner, believes the needle exchange is crucial to reducing infections.

“We’ve been supportive of OCNEP since their inception,” said Yaeger. “If you really want to end the epidemic or drive down new infections in your community, you have to have a syringe service program that allows you to provide that for people who are at high risk.”

According to Radiant, 41 of 202 people tested positive for Hepatitis C at the Civic Center in 2017.

Birnbaum argued that a needle exchange is a cost-effective public health strategy.

“A syringe costs less than $1. But, the cost of a lifetime of medications and treatments to address HIV and hepatitis would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. If you have to make a choice between a public health approach and the approach that the city has taken, I think it stands to reason you’d want to stand with public health,” said Birnbaum.

Public comments about the new exchange will be accepted by the California Department of Public Health through June 25. To submit a comment, visit www.cdph.ca.gov and search for SEP applications.

In addition to providing testing and prevention, the needle exchange plans to partner with the Solace Foundation to provide free doses of the opioid overdose reversal agent naloxone.

Liam Blume is a Literary Journalism major at UC Irvine and grew up in Orange County.

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