Drugs

World Hepatitis Day: Will CA Allow Pharmacists to Save Lives and Money through Syringes?

California is one of only three states in the U.S. that still prohibits pharmacists from selling a syringe without a prescription from a physician.

May 19th marks World Hepatitis Awareness Day - a great opportunity for California to take action to help prevent liver cancer and liver disease caused by hepatitis C and B. We ask you to join us in supporting Senate Bill 1029 to ensure all Californians have access to an essential and common-sense component of an effective hepatitis prevention strategy: the ability to purchase sterile syringes in a pharmacy.

Hepatitis C, which is commonly transmitted when syringes are shared, can lead to liver disease, cirrhosis, liver cancer, and premature death. While treatment for hepatitis C is partially effective, it is expensive and for some patients debilitating. Even with treatment, some remain chronically infected.

Long after a person has stopped using drugs, living with chronic hepatitis C can lead to other health problems, to disability, to job loss, and even homelessness. Thirty percent of people living with HIV are co-infected with hepatitis C. Hepatitis C is now one of the leading causes of death for people with HIV/AIDS in San Francisco. Hospitalizations for hepatitis C cost the California taxpayers over $1.5 billion in 2007 alone.

While all forms of hepatitis can cause severe health problems and even death, there is no vaccine for hepatitis C. The only way to prevent it is to ensure that people have the information and resources they need to avoid transmitting it.

Yet California is one of only three states in the U.S. that still prohibits pharmacists from selling a syringe without a prescription from a physician. Most states amended their laws in light of evidence that limited accesses to sterile syringes led drug users to share used ones, and that sharing syringes transmits HIV and hepatitis B and C.

The sharing of used syringes is the most common cause of new hepatitis C infections in the state and the second most common cause of HIV infection. We know from the research that pharmacy sales are a cost-effective way to combat the spread of hepatitis C and HIV without contributing to increased drug use, drug injection, crime or unsafe discard of syringes.

That is why Senate Bill 1029 is needed. It would expand the current pilot program, scheduled to end this year, to allow any pharmacy in the state to sell up to 30 syringes to individuals if the pharmacist so desires. Study after study has shown that increasing access to sterile syringes is the best way to prevent syringe sharing. By preventing HIV and hepatitis C, it is an efficient and cost-effective means of saving public dollars, and more importantly, lives. There is no cost to taxpayers through this plan, as the cost of prevention falls to the individual who purchases the syringes.

As people concerned with the health and well-being of all Californians, we ask you to stand with us in support of SB 1029. The California Department of Public Health, the Federal Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, the World Health Organization, and all leading health policy research organizations agree - safe and legal syringe access through pharmacies is a key component to the prevention of hepatitis C and HIV.

Leland Y. Yee, Ph.D. (D-San Francisco) is a California state Senator. Barry Zevin MD, is a physician specialist with the, Tom Waddell Health Center, San Francisco Department of Public Health, and assistant clinical professor at UCSF School of Medicine.
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