Hillsborough County Commissioners have agreed to a controversial potential solution for the spread of HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis C and opioid overdoses - a needle exchange initiative.
By a five-to-one vote at last Wednesday’s public hearing, they approved the Syringe Service Program which allows for the exchange of used needles and hypodermic syringes for unused ones.
“Florida and specifically Hillsborough County are one of the few remaining counties that are still seeing an increase in HIV cases,” said Dr. Jason Wilson, Medical Director for the Clinical Decision Unit at Tampa General Hospital. “And Florida's been identified as a kind of hot spot for needing HIV intervention programs, specifically in Hillsborough County.”
According to a report, as for 2018, 7,521 people in Hillsborough County live with HIV. 179 deaths related to opioids were reported in the county in 2017, which grew to 222 in 2018.
The program will, among other things, give kits containing Narcan, an emergency opioid antagonist to treat overdosis, to participants. It will also offer onsite counseling and resources to prevent or treat drug abuse.
Ellen Snelling, board member of the Hillsborough County Anti-Drug Alliance, said during the commision meeting that people don’t reach out for help because they don’t trust the system. She believes that the program would restore that trust. Furthermore, users would be linked to health care and mental health services.
“I believe that mental health is very much a part of this,” Snelling said. “If we could treat the mental health issues, we may be able to help get them on to the treatment that they need.”
Since Florida Statutes do not allow using state, county or municipal funds for needle exchange programs, it will be financed by a three-year grant and the help of private donors, said Dr. Wilson.
Similar initiatives have been used for several years in different states, but in Florida, Hillsborough will be only the second county to adopt such an initiative, following Miami-Dade county. The needle exchange program there started in 2016 and resulted in a decrease in the number of opioid-related deaths in 2018, said Wilson.
He hopes for similar results in Hillsborough.
“We already have a drug addiction epidemic. We already have an HIV and hepatitis C epidemic. All we can do is help with that. We're not going to make it any worse,” he said. “We can only make it better. And so we have a chance right now to be one of the first counties in the country to really eliminate hepatitis C, but you can't get there without a harm reduction strategy like this.”
The program is expected to launch in June and will operate in one or more fixed locations, as well as through mobile health units provided by USF’s College of Medicine.