Pubdate: Mon, 30 May 2005
Source: Newsday (NY)
Copyright: 2005 Newsday Inc.
Author: Sheryl McCarthy
Bookmark: (Needle Exchange)


When Jonathan Gaska went to work everyday near the Far Rockaway
Shopping Center, he didn't notice any drug addicts shooting up or
discarded needles on the sidewalk.

So Gaska, who is district manager of his local community board, was
shocked when New York City public health officials told him that the
Rockaways has one of the highest concentrations of intravenous drug
users in the city. They tend to congregate around the shopping center.

It took even more convincing by the officials to get the board to
agree to let a needle exchange program into the neighborhood. But
starting this summer, from a van parked four hours one day a week on
Beach 19th Street south of Mott Avenue, a private AIDS agency will
offer addicts new, clean needles in exchange for their old, used ones.
The program aims to stem the spread of AIDS and other deadly diseases
caused by needle sharing.

"There is never a good location to put these programs," Gaska told me,
stressing that his board plans to review the program after three
months, and if it's not working, it will have to go. But he believes
that "if it saves one or two lives, it's worth it."

When a city commission released a report last week recommending that
free condoms be made available in public places like movies, nail
salons, barbershops and laundromats, it elicited guffaws. What got
less attention was the report's call for needle exchanges in high
drug-use areas, reviving an issue that New Yorkers haven't dealt with
in almost a decade.

Until last year, the city had only nine small exchange programs, run
by private groups. Yet the city has more than 100,000 intravenous drug
users, according to public health officials. After two mayors who
opposed needle exchange, moral opposition from people who said they
encouraged drug abuse, and resistance from communities that didn't
want them in their neighborhoods, the city has opened its first new
needle exchange programs since the 1990s.

Public health department statistics last year found that Long Island
City, Jamaica and the Rockaways have far higher rates of IV drug use
than Queens in general. In November, the AIDS Center of Queens County
started a needle exchange out of its Long Island City office. In April
it opened programs at two churches in Jamaica, and it will open the
Rockaways program this summer. The first three programs have attracted
more than 50 addicts, and have given away more than 2,000 clean needles.

I remember the bitter controversy over needle exchanges that flared in
the early 1990s. Health officials said providing clean needles to
addicts had proven to be effective in slowing the spread of diseases
like AIDS and hepatitis. But opponents claimed that it encouraged drug
use. Shutting down the city's small, pilot needle-exchange program was
one of David Dinkins' first acts as mayor. He later had a change of
heart and allowed a few programs to start up again. But Rudolph
Giuliani didn't support them, and efforts stalled.

The revival of needle exchanges now is due to Mayor Michael
Bloomberg's progressive health commissioner, Thomas Frieden, who knows
they can save lives, and the support of the mayor and Queens Borough
President Helen Marshall.

"People may think we're condoning immoral behavior, but our
perspective is you take the world as it is and try to make it a
better, safer place," Commissioner Frieden told me. "Drugs are bad,
and we want to get people off drugs. But it's hard to do that if
they're dead."

It's refreshing to see common sense, sound public health policy, and a
genuine desire to help people win out over ideology and preaching. The
needle exchange programs also try to move drug addicts into treatment

Frieden says that in the early '90s, half of all the city's drug users
were HIV positive, whereas now only 10 to 12 percent carry the virus.
Chalk up the return of needle exchanges as one more feather in this
administration's cap. 
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