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Syringe Exchange Soon Could Be Reality in Florida

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Health advocates say giving drug users access to sterile needles will help fight the spread of HIV. (xenia/morguefile)
Health advocates say giving drug users access to sterile needles will help fight the spread of HIV. (xenia/morguefile)
 By Mona ShandContact
February 29, 2016

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - With Florida leading the nation in the number of new HIV cases and facing a growing heroin epidemic, health advocates say a measure moving through the Legislature could help on both fronts.

The program would create a pilot in Miami-Dade County, run by the University of Miami Hospital, to establish sterile syringe exchanges.

Dr. Hansel Tookes, resident physician of Jackson Memorial Hospital, has been trying to create such a program since 2009, and says giving those who inject drugs access to clean needles without a prescription has been shown to drastically reduce the spread of diseases such as HIV, hepatitis and other infections, while also saving taxpayers money.

"We actually looked at the data for the past year at Jackson to see how many people were hospitalized with these bacterial infections that come from using dirty needles, and the cost to the public hospital system was $11.4 million over one year," says Tookes.

While the program would be the first of its kind in Florida, more than 200 sterile syringe-exchange programs already are in place in 32 states.

Despite having faced opposition in recent years, the measure easily passed the state Senate last week and its companion bill is awaiting a vote in the House.

Tookes says not only is the practice of providing sterile syringes part of a strategy to reduce the spread of disease, it's also a way to offer a hard-to-reach population a chance at a better life.

"We form relationships with these people, we can refer them to rehab, and just really let them know somebody cares," says Tookes. "I have many patients who struggle with addiction and what they say to me is when I showed them I cared, it really made them realize that their life had value."

Tookes adds after Washington, D.C. implemented sterile syringe exchanges in 2007, the rate of new HIV infections dropped by 80 percent.

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