Needle exchange protects all

It was telling last month when the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet warned the 700 Adopt-A-Highway groups to watch out for discarded heroin needles.

The youth groups and others who collect litter should not pick up the needles but call the highway department or police so specially trained crews can dispose of them safely. "It's extremely dangerous," a spokesman said.

It's something for Urban County Council members to keep in mind later this summer when they review a proposal to establish a needle exchange program here.

Needle exchanges were approved for communities that want them in the heroin bill that passed the General Assembly last session. Since then, the Lexington-Fayette Health Department has been working on the nuts and bolts of setting up a program, as have groups in Jefferson County and Northern Kentucky.

Needle exchanges allow drug users to bring in dirty needles and get clean ones in return without fear of legal repercussions. Typically they are operated by public health programs because dirty needles are a threat to public health. There is ample evidence that the incidence of hepatistis C and HIV, the AIDS virus, are on the rise among drug users who share needles.

Some people bridle at the idea of giving free needles to illegal users, but the clean needles can help prevent the spread of diseases and also offer an opportunity to give users information about treatment programs. People who use needle exchanges enter treatment more often than those who don't.

It's also clear, as the Adopt-A-Highway example indicates, that dirty needles don't just affect drug users. Police and other first responders are at risk, as are people in playgrounds and parks, or volunteers trying to keep highways clean.

The council should ask questions and be satisfied that any needle exchange in Fayette County is operated properly, but there should not be any question that establishing an exchange is in the best interests of the entire community.