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NYC Safer Injection Pamphlets to Stay in Circulation, says Councilmember Peter Vallone

Posted by , January 07, 2010 at 7:12pm

NYC Safer Injection Pamphlets to Stay in Circulation, says Councilmember Peter Vallone

The pamphlet that caused the uproar

In an interview Wednesday, New York City Councilmember Peter Vallone Jr. told the Update that after talking to City Health Commissioner Thomas Farley, the two men will “agree to disagree” about a now-controversial pamphlet that provides tips on safer heroin use. They agreed that the pamphlet will no longer be available online but will continue to be distributed throughout the city.

“I met with Commissioner Farley. The pamphlet won’t be available on the Internet, but will still be distributed to people being released from Riker’s [and other locations]. We’ve agreed to disagree,” Vallone said. It is unclear how the pamphlet will be removed from the Internet, since it is currently available on various web sites.

Advocates were disturbed at the assault on harm reduction, a treatment approach that seeks to minimize the harm that people do to themselves through substance use and/or unsafe sexual practices.

“It’s upsetting that important harm reduction materials will be taken off the Internet because of this unnecessary backlash,” said Housing Works Vice President for New York Advocacy and Policy terri smith-caronia. “While I’m glad the materials will still be distributed where needed, we need to increase, not decrease access to information that will saves drug users from becoming infected with hepatitis C or HIV.”

There was a mini-media storm this week after a New York Post story Heroin for Dummies reported that in 2007, the New York City Department of Health created a pamphlet to ensure heroin users use drugs as safely as possible. The 16-page pamphlet offers sensible tips for drug users about not sharing needles but City Council Chair of the Public Safety Committee Vallone denounced the pamphlet as “sick.”

Vallone angered AIDS and harm reduction advocates because New York City has long been a strong supporter of harm reduction and has operated syringe exchange programs since the early 1990s. The harm reduction strategies are working. HIV prevalence among injection drug users is down by more than 75 percent since then, and hepatitis C infections also fell by a third. In addition unintentional overdose deaths declined by 25 percent from 2006 through 2008 in New York City, representing at least 200 fewer deaths. In addition, studies have shown syringe exchange doesn’t increase drug use.

Bloomberg defended the pamphlets on Monday and said, “I would certainly not recommend to anyone that they use hard drugs or soft drugs. But our health department does have an interest if you’re going to do certain things to get you to do it as healthily as you possibly can.”

Some 70,000 pamphlets were handed out in adult homeless shelters, public health clinics and other settings where people with substance-abuse problems are most likely to see it. Vallone said that while he “understands the purpose of needle exchange” he doesn’t support the pamphlet. “It sends the message that there’s a safe way to shoot heroin,” he told the Update.

A DOH spokesperson countered, “The pamphlet provides potentially life saving advice for people until they get into treatment. The advice consists of ten critical tips for reducing the harm that illicit drug use, and especially injection drug use can cause, such as how to prevent overdose and prevent the spread of HIV infection.”

A coalition of groups that support harm reduction, including Harlem United, the Harm Reduction Coalition and Housing Works, reached out to City Council members yesterday to remind them of the importance of supporting harm reduction

“We reached out to City Council member to thank them for their leadership, and to make sure this controversy doesn’t distract them from their support of public health,” said Harm Reduction Coalition Policy Director Daniel Raymond.

Robert Tolbert, an outreach worker at CitiWide Harm Reduction and a member of Voices of Community Advocates and Leaders (VOCAL), defended the pamplets as “a learning tool.” Tolbert has both HIV and hepatitis C, as a result of heroin use. “Syringe exchange and instructions of how to inject were not available at the time I was really using. Had these tools been available to me, who knows?” Tolbert said. “I’m not condoning the use of drugs. I am condoning that people engaged in this practice do it as safely as possible.”

A User’s Voice

A client at Housing Works was featured on CNN yesterday, stating the importance of syringe exchange and defending the pamphlet. He was infected with hepatitis C by using an dirty needle.

“It’s about saving lives, reducing infections and helping people make healthier choices. These pamphlets embody harm reduction. Much ofthe outrage was about two pages in the 16 page pamphlet. But these pamphlets are great, and information we already share with our clients,” said Sheila Vakharia, a harm reduction social worker at Housing Works.

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