Long Island City first to host HIV prevention effort among intravenous drug users
Community Board 2 in Queens is on the verge of approving a syringe exchange plan that supporters are hoping will combat the spread of HIV/AIDS and provide drug addicts with an outlet to seek treatment for their addictions.
The board, which oversees the communities of Long Island City, Sunnyside, and Woodside, has the largest population of HIV/AIDS cases in the borough, within the zip code 11101, according to board chair Joe Conley. He said he and others on the board have decided to support the initiative championed by the AIDS Center of Queens County (ACQC) to allow a van to distribute clean needles at the group’s Hunters Street Long Island City office.
“Our first reaction was not to want it,” Conley said during a phone interview last week. “But when you look at the facts, you realize there needs to be some sort of action.”
Intravenous drug use is the leading cause of AIDS in Queens, affecting primarily blacks and Latinos, according to statistics provided by ACQC. Queens and Staten Island are the only two boroughs that have yet to implement syringe exchange programs.
HIV is spread via semen and blood through sex, sharing dirty needles through drug use, and blood transfusions, and to infants born to infected mothers.
The initiative was scheduled to be approved at Community Board 2’s March meeting but was tabled because residents living in the area of Community Board 1, which shares the 11101 zip code with Community Board 2, objected to the proposal. Residents of the Queensbridge public housing development, along with area clergy, objected to the plan because they said they had not been consulted during the proposal’s draft stages.
Those concerns, however, were settled in the weeks following the April meeting when Conley, Borough President Helen Marshall, ACQC executive director Phil Glotzer, and other city officials sat down to agree on a compromise––moving the clean needle distribution site to the Hunters Street location from the original proposed site in a mobile van at the corner of Vernon Boulevard and Queens Plaza South.
City Councilmember Eric Gioia (D-Sunnyside) signed on to the proposal once the compromise was worked out.
“Queens is one of only two boroughs without a needle exchange,” Gioia said in a statement prepared for Gay City News. “I was happy to broker the deal that sought and included community input. Building a foundation of community support is essential for the project’s success.”
Board members now seem ready to approve the plan at their May meeting. If approved, the proposed program then heads to the state Department of Health for review before being fully implemented.
Dan Andrews, a spokesperson for Marshall, said an agreement prioritizing the drug treatment aspect of the program on par with the goal of stemming the HIV/AIDS cases helped to bring the concerned parties to a consensus.
“Basically, from [Marshall’s] point of view, she wanted not only a prevention program, but also something that would treat drug abusers,” Andrews said of the syringe exchange program. “It’s gonna happen.”
A spokesperson for Community Board 1 said the board had no official position on the syringe exchange program. She said her members were waiting for Conley and Board 2 to act next month.
If the board approves the measure to allow the syringe exchange program, it will be the first new program in nine years to open up in the city. Since 1992, syringe exchange programs in New York have made more than 30,000 referrals to drug treatment programs, according to ACQC. Of all services requested by drug users with the existing syringe exchange programs, 31 percent seek drug treatment and 28 percent ask for health care.
Glotzer said the proposal for Queens calls for the establishment of a mobile van that could eventually bring the syringe exchange program to communities in Jamaica and Far Rockaway where HIV/AIDS infection rates are particularly high among intravenous drug users. He emphasized that the van would not park near schools or other potentially controversial sites, but would instead go to the heart of where drug users congregate.
Each participant in the syringe exchange program would have to register with health officials running the center. They then will receive a permanent member card to access the clean needles.
“Community Board 2 has been very open-minded to this process. I’m very pleasantly surprised,” Glotzer said. “It is the first time ever for Queens to have a needle exchange site. We don’t want to open up a program where people do not want it.”
Glotzer said that in addition to Marshall, the syringe exchange program is supported by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his commissioner of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Dr. Thomas Freiden.
Andrews, speaking for Marshall, said he and others supporting the syringe exchange plan will focus on community involvement to plan future sites and discuss objections to limit opposition based on misinformation. He said initial objections to Community Board 2’s proposal came from a feeling that the communities had not been deeply involved in designing the initial proposal.
“Each site will involve those elements of notification,” said Andrews, who plans to reach out to borough civic organizations and clergy. “Community involvement is key to the process.”
The point of a syringe exchange program, according to Glotzer, is to stop the transmission of HIV/AIDS in the Queens community, engage active drug users in the communities where they live, and ultimately reduce the amount of harm that could eventually affect more of Queens.
Syringe exchange programs became legal in New York City in 1992, and after three years, the annual rate of HIV infection among intravenous drug users was cut in half from between 4 percent and 7 percent to between 1 percent and 2 percent in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx, according to ACQC figures.
Glotzer, already working on winning over support in Far Rockaway and Jamaica, said people in Queens who are still unaware of the potential public health crisis that continued ADIS transmission poses are not initially in favor of the idea of a syringe exchange programs. He said there is confusion over what is fact and what is myth: many think syringe exchange programs encourage drug use rather than providing opportunities to bring addicts into treatment and that such programs create hangouts for drug users.
Glotzer emphasized that syringe exchange programs only go into neighborhoods where drugs use is already high, and he pointed out that in 2000, syringe exchange programs in the United States collected and disposed of 18 million used needles.
“Sometimes people do not want to know what is going on in their neighborhoods,” Glotzer said during a previous interview. “The myths are what’s killing good public health.”
Supporters of syringe exchanges contend the initiative is a means to reach intravenous drug users who rarely leave their own communities because that is where they buy and use their drugs.
“I am very proud of the community board, we took a proactive approach to this,” Conley said. “People should be saying that we need to do something because this could affect my neighbor, my family, my children.”