Nee­dle ex­change pro­gram aims to pre­vent in­fec­tions, ed­u­cate users on dan­gers of abuse

Ex­perts blame ‘dirty’ de­vices for spread of in­fec­tious dis­eases

Orlando Sentinel - - LOCAL & STATE - By Stephen Hu­dak

Nee­dle ex­change pro­grams were il­le­gal in Florida a year ago. Now Or­ange County may get one.

County com­mis­sion­ers unan­i­mously ap­proved an or­di­nance Tues­day that will al­low the county to es­tab­lish an ex­change pro­gram de­signed to pre­vent the trans­mis­sion of in­fec­tious dis­eases such as HIV, Hep­ati­tis B, Hep­ati­tis C and other blood-borne dis­eases among in­tra­venous drug users, their sex­ual part­ners and their chil­dren, who of­ten bear the con­se­quences of ad­dic­tion.

Or­ange would be the seventh Florida county to cre­ate a com­mu­nity-based pro­gram since the law changed in June of 2019.

The other coun­ties are Broward, Hills­bor­ough, Leon, Mana­tee, Mi­amiDade and Palm Beach.

“It’s not just a lo­ca­tion where in­di­vid­u­als go and ex­change nee­dles,” said Yolanda Martinez, di­rec­tor of Or­ange County Health Ser­vices. “It’s a place where in­di­vid­u­als can get a va­ri­ety of other ser­vices that can help them with the drug abuse or the risks of other be­hav­iors.”

Those other ser­vices could in­clude vac­ci­na­tions; coun­sel­ing; and re­fer­ral to sub­stance abuse treat­ment, med­i­cal care or men­tal health pro­grams.

Health ex­perts blame so­called “dirty” nee­dles — sy­ringes con­tam­i­nated with blood of oth­ers — with spread­ing in­fec­tious dis­eases among drug users who share them.

Martinez said Florida Depart­ment of Health statis­tics show re­cent in­creases in Or­ange County’s in­fec­tion rate of HIV, Hep­ati­tis B and Hep­ati­tis C.

In some in­stances, the in­fected per­son sel­f­re­ported drug use by in­jec­tion, a sig­nif­i­cant risk fac­tor, ac­cord­ing to the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion.

She said the county drafted its pro­posal af­ter gath­er­ing in­for­ma­tion from state health ex­perts, sher­iff ’s deputies and hospi­tal sys­tems Or­lando Health and Ad­ven­tHealth.

County staff also met with op­er­a­tors of a needle­ex­change pi­lot pro­gram in Mi­ami-Dade County, the state’s first ex­change pro­gram.

Be­fore they voted, the board heard from sev­eral Or­lando-area med­i­cal stu­dents who lob­bied for a nee­dle-ex­change pro­gram through emails read into the record of the meet­ing, which was con­ducted through video-con­fer­ence be­cause of so­cial-dis­tanc­ing guide­lines. The stu­dents cited promis­ing find­ings of the Mi­ami-Dade pi­lot pro­gram.

Nee­dle ex­changes don’t boost drug use, but help stop the spread of other in­fec­tions, said Josh Salz­man, a med­i­cal stu­dent at the Univer­sity of Cen­tral Florida.

An Or­ange County pro­gram could op­er­ate at fixed lo­ca­tions or through a mo­bile health unit, ac­cord­ing to the or­di­nance.

In­di­vid­u­als would be al­lowed to trade dirty nee­dles for clean ones on a one-forone ba­sis.

The pro­gram would be re­quired to pro­vide ed­u­ca­tional in­for­ma­tion about drug abuse and nee­dles to par­tic­i­pants and of­fer treat­ment op­tions.

Though le­gal in other states for decades, Florida for­bid nee­dle ex­changes un­til 2016 when leg­is­la­tors ap­proved a pi­lot pro­gram in Mi­ami.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSan­tis signed the In­fec­tious Dis­ease Elim­i­na­tion Act into law last June.

Also known as IDEA, the leg­is­la­tion al­lows Florida coun­ties to de­cide if they want to cre­ate pro­grams de­signed to take used nee­dles out of cir­cu­la­tion.

The mea­sure also em­pha­sizes con­nect­ing IV users to in­ter­ven­tion; free test­ing for HIV; and pro­vid­ing Nar­can, a drug which can re­verse an opi­oid over­dose.

Martinez

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