Livingston Parish, which leads the state in hepatitis A infections, is eyeing a needle exchange program that would allow the free distribution of syringes and needles to drug users.
Needle exchange programs allow drug users to bring their used needles to a site and properly dispose of them in exchange for a clean, new needle. The idea is to reduce dirty needle reuse and sharing that can spread diseases like hepatitis and HIV.
Dr. Gina LaGarde, regional medical director for the state Office of Public Health section overseeing Livingston Parish, said needle exchange programs slow the spread of disease spread. They also put users in contact with other services like mental health or drug treatment.
“We know that if we can bring someone who’s injecting drugs into the facility to exchange their needles, we have the opportunity to educate them, to vaccinate them against hepatitis A, to test them for HIV,” she recently told the parish council. “And we know those that come in are five times more likely to seek addiction care.”
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LaGarde said Livingston Parish leads the state with hepatitis A infections, She said that's probably due to the growing demographic of younger people, in their 20s and 30s, injecting drugs.
As of Nov. 27, Livingston was the only parish that ranked in the highest count bracket for outbreak cases, according to the Department of Health's website. The parish recorded more than 121 cases since January 2018. East Baton Rouge and Ouachita parishes are the next-closest, with between 61 and 120 cases reported each.
Livingston Parish law doesn’t specifically address the disposal of needles, but a proposed ordinance set to go to public hearing Thursday would amend the parish’s code to allow for a private entity to begin that type of program.
The new law, if approved, would decriminalize the distribution and possession of hypodermic needles and syringes. It would also allow for the entity providing the program to be classified as a “social services center” or “government office.”
Some council members were initially skeptical of the needle exchange program and the proposed change in the law, although the council unanimously approved introducing the ordinance on Nov. 21 with the exception of Garry “Frog” Talbert, who was not present for the vote.
Outgoing councilman Tab Lobell said he was one of the initially hesitant council members, saying that providing clean needles free of charge would hurt, not help, the parish’s drug problem.
“At first glance I thought this was going to be kind of an enabling deal, so I kind of shied away from it,” he said at the recent council meeting. “But it sounds like it’s setting the tone for people to get clean and encouraging them to do that, so I think it’s a good deal.”
LaGarde said depending on the private entity running the program, it could be housed in a mobile clinic or a building that drug users could visit. The private group would operate under a partnership with the state Office of Public Health.
The program would be paid for through a federal grant that grant covers staffing and materials. However, the grant prohibits purchase of the needles themselves, so a private entity must fund that portion of the exchange, LaGarde said.
Once the parish passes a law allowing for the needle exchange, she said, the parish can begin meeting with potential partners to determine the best model for getting drug users "into our doors so we can provide them with the care they need.”
The ordinance will be up for public hearing at the council’s regular meeting Thursday night.