Needle exchange program aims to prevent infections, educate users on dangers of abuse
Experts blame ‘dirty’ devices for spread of infectious diseases
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.