This week, readers of community newspapers will be confronted with ads highlighting the less-sunny side of San Diego: A little boy reaching into the bushes recovers not a ball, but a drug users’ discarded dirty needle.
The Alliance Healthcare Foundation, a San Diego-based foundation providing grants to local communities that address a variety of public health issues, has launched an ambitious $400,000 advertising and community outreach campaign to create awareness of San Diego’s drug injection problem.
[Is 53 percent a 1993 number?]
In 1993, there were 28,000 known injection drug users in San Diego County. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 1997 that 53 percent of all newborns in the United States contracted HIV as a result of illegal drug use, the alliance reported.
Yet, foremost, the ads aim at convincing local voters of the merits of a comprehensive needle-exchange program where volunteers distribute free, clean needles to injection drug users in exchange for used ones.
Such programs work under the premise it’s a step toward harnessing the spread of infectious disease, such as HIV and hepatitis.
A 1997 initiative to adopt a resolution for such a program was rejected by the county Board of Supervisors in a 5-0 vote.
But the alliance’s hope has been renewed by Gov. Gray Davis’ Oct. 10 blessing of a new law that exempts organizations that dispense clean needles to known injection drug users from being prosecuted.
“We want voters to go to the elected officials and do something,” said Stephanie Casenza, an alliance spokeswoman, adding that San Diego is the only metropolitan area in the nation without such a program.
Hundreds of jurisdictions around the country , 24 in California alone , have declared AIDS a sufficient public health emergency to allow needle exchange, the alliance said.
But Dr. Robert Ross, director of the county’s Health and Human Services Agency, sees little hope county supervisors will sanction needle exchange anytime soon.
“The Board of Supervisors is not in favor of clean needle exchange,” Ross said. “This position was reiterated one year ago.”
He added while there is some evidence that needle exchange programs have reduced the spread of HIV, it’s one of many tools to harness the problem.
The county has yet to exhaust its prevention, education and street outreach programs to control the epidemic, Ross said, adding that he would only recommend needle exchange to county supervisors if “every other conceivable measure was exhausted.”
Still, Ross said his staff is evaluating the effectiveness of needle-exchange programs in other cities and counties, such as in New Haven, Conn.
And that’s good news for the alliance, which reported that in New Haven, HIV infection dropped 40 percent as a result of needle exchange. Similar success stories were reported elsewhere, including Tacoma, Wash.; Portland, Ore.; and New York City.
But that’s not the only good news.
In early 2000, Ross plans to present a status report on HIV trends in San Diego to supervisors.
“If his answers are positive and there was a proposal that would reduce both drug addiction and HIV, I would think the Board of Supervisors should reconsider,” said Supervisor Ron Roberts.
Roberts, who said he voted against needle exchange Dec. 9, 1997, because it was illegal, recently met with Ross and Ruth Riedel, alliance’s chief executive, to discuss the issue.
Yet, Riedel , who as recently as May praised both supervisors Roberts and Dianne Jacob for spearheading efforts to improve San Diego’s health care , is unlikely to win Jacob’s vote on the issue.
Last week, Jacob reiterated her opposition to needle exchange.
“I will not support it,” Jacob said. “It sends the wrong message, particularly to children.”
The alliance hopes statistics , such as from a recent telephone survey that showed 69 percent of 1,010 Californians favored needle-exchange programs to help stop the spread of AIDS , will swing supervisors’ vote.
But critics, such as Ross, contend the vote would be less favorable if participants were asked whether they want such a program in their own back yard.
“The overwhelming majority supports mental health services , but most people don’t want it in their neighborhood,” Ross said.
Yet, alliance’s aggressive outreach campaign is far from over: Its message will be broadcast on six local radio stations starting in January and continue in print through March.