2005-01-21 / Front Page

Needle Exchange On The Way

Health Department Approval Expected
By Brian Magoolaghan

Intravenous drug abusers will soon be able to exchange their used needles for clean ones at a van parked in Far Rockaway – free of charge – if the state health department approves the proposal, as expected.

The AIDS Center of Queens County (ACQC), which operates three other syringe exchange programs, won provisional support from Community Board 14 last week by a vote of 21 to 4 with one abstention, according to CB14 District Manager Jonathan Gaska.

ACQC Executive Director Philip Glotzer told The Wave he expects the final OK from the state Department of Health shortly, and that a modified cargo van with the letter “Q” marked on the side would go into operation in about 90 days.

Glotzer said the majority of people who use the exchange will come from within a 10-block radius. Compare that with city health estimates from 2001 that show about 550 of Rockaway’s 106,000 residents are infected with HIV/AIDS, with about 70 new cases per year, and a serious public health issue emerges. CB14 is faced with striking a balance between that issue and the community’s other needs.

Of the 15 people who signed up to speak before CB14 voted last Tuesday night, only one voiced opposition – regarding the Beach 21 Street location, which is close to the Mott Avenue subway station and the heart of the commercial district. CB14 sought to avoid selecting a site near schools, houses of worship and residential areas. Additionally, said Gaska, the community will have the opportunity to pull the plug on the program when it is reviewed after three months of operation.

“If it’s not working out we can say, ‘We want to move it,’ or, ‘We don’t want it anymore,’” Gaska said of the van, which would operate on Wednesdays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., according to the proposal. The hours of operation coincide with a lull in commuter and student foot-traffic.

Glotzer, meanwhile, stressed the program as a “good public health initiative.” The exchange will help slow the spread of the HIV/AIDS virus, he said, and lead some of the most “disenfranchised and disconnected people in society” to other services, such as case management, mental health, legal and HIV/AIDS counseling, at the center’s office at 1600 Central Avenue.

“The goal is to provide them with more than just a syringe,” said Glotzer, who noted the program’s life and money saving potential. “If this stops even one case of HIV/ AIDS it’s worth it,” Glotzer added. He estimated the cost of treating a patient of the immune system virus over its course at about $150,000.

Meanwhile, the decision to endorse a program that suggests the community has a significant intravenous drug abuse problem and HIV/ AIDS infection rate – understandably the last attributes a community in the midst of re-development would boast – is not one that CB14 took lightly.

Members of the Social/Health Committee convened in October at the request of Chairperson Delores Orr. The committee visited other ACQC centers to see what affect they had on the surrounding area, reviewed information supplied by a researcher hired by ACQC and toured the Far Rockaway area.

Orr described the programs she saw as “very efficient and un-intrusive.”

“People come, exchange their needles and they’re gone,” said Orr.

Glotzer, who toured with CB14 members, said a check of public restrooms turned up used syringes. Gaska was convinced when he witnessed two people “shooting up” near the Redfern Houses, he said. The majority of people who use the needle exchange will come from within a 10-block radius, Glotzer added.

Intravenous drug users in Rockaway also have another option available to them: the Expanded Syringe Demonstration Program (ESAP). By law, anyone 18 years of age or older may purchase up to 10 syringes at a time – without a prescription – at any participating pharmacy, for between $2 and $4. Eight different locations in Rockaway participate in the program.

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