Medical students champion new Orange County needle exchange program

March 04, 2016
Area(s) of Interest: Medical School Public Health Professional Development & Education 

Last year, a small group of University of California, Irvine School of Medicine students realized that Orange County was missing what they considered an important public health service that every other major city in California had access to: a clean-needle exchange program.

They decided to do something about it by creating a new 501(c)(3) non-profit dedicated to preventing disease and improving public health and safety in Orange County through a syringe exchange service.

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The medical student founders of the Orange County Needle Exchange Program (OCNEP) were hopeful that the services they created would address the gap in coverage and help decrease new human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and hepatitis C virus infections in the county by increasing access to clean needles and safely disposing of dirty ones. OCNEP will also provide referrals to social, substance abuse and health care services free of cost.

The program recently opened its needle exchange to the public in Santa Ana, at the Civic Center in a mobile site behind City Hall. During opening weekend the program served 70 clients, taking in over 800 used needles and dispensing close to 2,000 clean ones.

“Injection drug use leads to 9.1 percent of all cases of HIV in Orange County,” said Nathan Birnbaum, first-year medical student at UC Irvine and OCNEP Steering Committee member.

"We proposed a site [for the needle exchange] to the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) last fall, but it was rejected because of public safety concerns voiced by the city,” he said. City leaders and police felt the original location for the needle exchange program was problematic because it would have been located in a neighborhood with schools and a church nearby.

“For the past six months, we have worked with the city and injection drug users to come up with a plan that will not present a public safety risk,” Birnbaum noted. With several adjustments to the plan, they were able to win CDPH approval for Orange County's first needle exchange.

The thinking behind the program is that if drug use can't be halted, at least substituting clean needles for dirty ones means that users face less exposure to diseases and infections.

After receiving an initial startup grant and staff support from the California Medical Association Foundation, the project is now also supported by funds from the Arnold P. Gold Foundation, Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, California Health Care Foundation and private donations. Thus far, OCNEP has successfully raised funds to cover more than two years of operating costs.

“Right now, we have received $100,000 to fund OCNEP and we have approximately 45 certified volunteers including medical students attending the medical school at Irvine and social work students attending classes at the University of Southern California,” Birnbaum said.

The program also acts as a point of entry for drug users to gain access to health care, social services and housing. “We are meeting a need that was not being addressed in the county,” Birnbaum explains. “Our goal is to serve individuals who want to exchange dirty needles with clean ones with compassion, respect and dignity.”

For more information, visit www.ocnep.org.


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