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Community activist lobbies for passage

Needles are necessary to save lives, but they’re also silently destroying them in Florida by transmitting HIV and other diseases.

And that’s why Damien Salvaggio, a master’s student at Florida Atlantic University, has been lobbying the state for a new syringe exchange program — along with a coalition of healthcare providers and lawmakers who plan to combat the epidemic of HIV and intravenous diseases.

For the gay community it’s a growing concern with crystal meth use on the rise.

“People are less scared of needles,” said Salvaggio, when asked why meth use is so high in the gay community. “They’re starting online with social apps like Grindr.”

Throughout the nation there are needle exchange programs in major metropolitan areas but South Florida is not on that list. These programs are used to stop infection that involves intravenous drugs through the sharing of dirty needles.

The University of Miami and private donors will fund this pilot needle exchange program for five years. It will include mobile exchange sites and fixed location sites. Medical students will man each site and there will be a one-for-one exchange per needle. At the end of the five years, the results will be tallied and used for determining if the state of Florida will adopt the program.

The proposal for the Senate Bill (SB 1040) is sponsored by Sen. Oscar Branyan, Miami Gardens-D, and will most likely pass. However, the bill in the house (HB 475) is receiving some opposition.

The name of the program is being called IDEA or Infectious Disease Elimination Act. One issue that Salvaggio is having to deal with is the perception that programs like this promote drug use. However the programs do the exact opposite because each needle exchange site will offer wraparound services designed to help drug users with their addiction and get their lives back in order. Services include housing, addiction counseling and HIV testing.

Drug addicts and users may not use the services at first, but after more visits some start to get comfortable and agree to treatment.

“I mean you are being blasted with signs saying ‘get tested’ and eventually heavy users start to bite,” Salvaggio said.

According to the 2012 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention HIV Surveillance Report, Miami Dade County has the highest rate of new HIV infections in the country.

Salvaggio said one of the main reasons needle use is so high is because of the explosion of meth use in the gay community. There is also a very high usage of steroids among transgender men and women and some of them are using dirty needles to receive hormone treatments.

Salvaggio is very passionate about this program because he has seen needle exchanges work. He too is a longtime survivor, testing positive for HIV when he was just 19-years-old.

When he is not lobbying for IDEA, he spends his time volunteering at an HIV testing center where he recently had to tell someone they were positive.

“You cannot believe how hard it is to tell them you’re HIV positive…it’s amazingly difficult,” Salvaggio said. “It does make you very aware of how serious the work is that you do… it changes a kid’s life in a minute.”

Salvaggio first learned of how important the program was from reading a paper comparing the amount of needles on the streets of Miami to how many there were in San Francisco, written by Dr. Hansel Tookes, a resident doctor at Jackson Memorial Hospital.

During the study Tookes noticed that in the streets of Miami there were eight times the number of needles as compared to San Francisco.

“Every time we went out, we found syringes and in the most shocking places. We found needles everywhere, on playgrounds, in parks, next to luxury high rises, no place was immune,” Tookes said.

He also said taxpayers are the ones paying right now for people contracting HIV and other diseases. It costs about $360,000 a year to treat someone for HIV and $80,000 a year to treat someone with Hepatitis C.

Tookes also pointed out that intravenous diseases are affecting more than just the gay community. He has seen 45-year-old women with blonde hair come in for treatment because they used an infected needle.

While the bill has strong backing there are still those that remain steadfastly opposed to needle exchanges.

Rep. Michael Bileca, Miami-R, is one of those is concerned about the bill. Bileca was not available for interview, but Salvaggio said his legislative assistant told him that Bileca doesn’t think the streets are safe and he doesn’t know what will happen to the syringes once they’ve been distributed.

Tookes and Salvaggio completely disagree.

“First of all if I handed you a syringe right now would you inject drugs?” Tookes said trying to convey his disdain for the thought process behind that argument.

The program has hit a roadblock with Bileca not wanting to hear the bill and has currently been in the legislative process for three years. The senate bill is almost ready to be heard on the senate floor.

Last year the program almost passed but Dr. Andrew Armstrong, State Surgeon General, didn’t want the program to be federally funded. The year before it was rejected as well, but this year could be different with how far both bills have gone.

There is a potential for a new committee to be formed in the house with Bileca not on it. If that happens the bill has a higher potential of making it to the house floor.

“Right now we’re just completely ignoring the program,” Tookes said.