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Groups pitch plans for Jamaica needle exchange

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The board is still months away from voting on either proposal, but city Department of Health officials and representatives from Queens Hospital Center and the AIDS Center of Queens County called the issue a crisis for the Jamaica area. There are more than 1,700 people living with HIV in Jamaica and 201 people were newly diagnosed with the disease in 2002, said Dr. Marjorie Hill, assistant commissioner for HIV/AIDS for the Health Department.

"This is a very pressing health issue in Queens," she said at the board's June 16 meeting. "New York City has the largest AIDS epidemic in the country and IV drug use is a driving force in that epidemic."

The city is hoping to establish a syringe exchange program in Jamaica to help prevent new infections, Hill said. The center would allow addicts who use needles to inject drugs into their systems to bring in dirty hypodermics and receive sterile ones in exchange, Hill said.

The program would also offer clients information on mental and physical health topics, including drug rehabilitation, housing, employment, and a host of other issues, she said.

"These are not just places where needles are given," Hill said. "They often serve as a gateway for drug treatment and health care."

The facility would also have strict rules prohibiting drug addicts against getting a clean needle and selling them or using them to inject drugs near the property, Hill said.

The city has already gained unanimous approval from Community Board 2 to establish a program in Hunters Point and hopes to create ones in the East Elmhurst and Rockaway areas, she said.

Two groups presented possible plans for a Jamaica syringe exchange program at the community board meeting. Queens Hospital Center would establish the initiative at the Charles Drew Center on Archer Avenue. The hospital was planning to move behavioral health specialties, including psychology and other fields to the center, and the needle exchange would join them under this plan, said Lorinda Sherwood, director of the hospital's chemical dependency outpatient services.

The AIDS Center of Queens County also made a presentation, although its plan relies heavily on community input, said Dr. Marc Johnson, an ACQC board member and physician. The non-profit group provides medical and mental health care as well as support services for AIDS and HIV patients, he said.

ACQC would set up the program at a location that would be chosen by the community board, said Philip Glotzer, the group's executive director.

"We would look for a place where you feel we should be," he said."

Members of the community board expressed concerns over issues such as the hours of operation and where clients would come from, but the board must be in full support of the project and every detail from the location to the hours before it can go forward, Hill said.

"The state will not even consider the application unless it has the support of the community and especially the community board," she said. "This really is your responsibility, your duty, and you are the only ones who have that authority."

Board member Tracy Bowes blasted the idea of using the Charles Drew Center, suggesting the Queens Hospital Campus may be a better location.

"I do not believe an exchange program at this point in time, especially in downtown Jamaica, is appropriate," she said.

But many agreed there is a need for action.

"We're at a crisis in our community," said Councilman Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans). "We're not talking about it, we're not dealing with it."

Reach reporter Courtney Dentch by e-mail at news@timesledger.com, or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 138.

Posted 7:06 pm, October 10, 2011
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