Pubdate: Fri, 20 Aug 1999
Source: Florida Times-Union (FL)
Copyright: The Florida Times-Union 1999
Author: Marcia Mattson,  Times-Union staff writer


Lower HIV Rates Convinces Panel

A citizens committee is recommending Duval County try out a needle exchange
program in hopes of lowering HIV infection rates among injection drug
users, their sex partners and children.

First, though, the group must convince the public and area lawmakers to
champion the program and push for an exemption from a state law banning the
possession of drug paraphernalia.

''Therein lies the challenge,'' said study Chairwoman Jeanne Ward.

A public meeting on the committee's report is scheduled for 6-7 p.m. Monday
at St. Johns Cathedral, 256 E. Church St.

Lawmakers will be invited. Ward said the group has talked only informally
with them so far about the pilot program.

''A generalization would be people were pretty neutral about it, didn't
know much about it, and were willing to listen,'' she said.

The Jacksonville Community Council Inc. facilitated the study, which the
Health Planning Council of Northeast Florida funded with a federal grant.

''Being able to discuss this issue . . . I think speaks a lot to where
Jacksonville is today as a first-tier city,'' said Jeffrey Goldhagen,
director of the Duval County Health Department and a supporter of trying
out the program.

The committee studied from February through June whether needle exchange
should be tried in Duval County. It reviewed reports and heard from
speakers both for and against needle exchange, which is controversial
because it provides clean syringes and needles to illegal drug users, in
the hope they won't share paraphernalia and spread diseases.

HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, can survive in residual blood in the drug
user's equipment for as long as four weeks, according to the study.

JCCI tried to get as many people from different points of view as possible
to be part of the committee, said Ward, an economic development consultant.
The 17 members included clergy, members of law enforcement and health care

More than 70 percent of HIV infections among U.S. women of childbearing
age, and more than 75 percent of babies diagnosed with HIV or AIDS, are
linked to intravenous drug use.

Women made up more than half the new cases of HIV infection reported in the
five-county area of Northeast Florida between July 1997 and June 1998. The
counties include Duval, Nassau, Baker, Clay and St. Johns.

State Rep. Tony Hill, D-Jacksonville, introduced legislation last session
that would have allowed for an experimental needle-exchange program, but he
could not get enough support.

In the previous session, Bob Brooks, then a state representative, had
introduced similar legislation, unsuccessfully. Brooks recently was named
state health secretary, noted Drew McCarthy, director of community programs
and public policy for the Northeast Florida AIDS Network.

However, James McDonough, director of the state Office of Drug Control,
told the JCCI committee in May that he opposes needle exchange.

The JCCI study calls for a tightly regulated program, which Ward said means
requiring drug users to get the needles at a particular location and turn
in used needles, and keeping track of HIV infection rates to evaluate
whether the program is working. By contrast, some programs simply make
clean needles available in vending machines, or don't require drug users to
turn in their dirty needles for new ones.

Needle exchange could give health care workers an opportunity to interact
with, and possibly get treatment help for, the drug users, the study

The committee also called for the Legislature to provide enough treatment
funding so all drug abusers can get help.

Duval County has an estimated 5,100 injection drug users, at least 3,800 of
them using heroin, health officials estimate. The committee noted heroin
addiction is difficult to treat because withdrawal symptoms can be severe
and last months.

There are about 120 needle exchange programs in the United States. The
committee's report discussed its review of studies that have been used to
support or discount such programs' effectiveness.
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