Nearly one out of every five persons living with HIV/AIDS in Queens resides in Jamaica, said Eulalio Fontanez, Queens Hospital assistant director, during a Community Board 12 public hearing on Thursday.
“We cannot update the numbers fast enough,” he said. “People are still being counted. There are a lot of undocumented cases.”
Fontanez and other health professionals stressed the need for Queens to implement Syringe Exchange Programs during the meeting at the High School of Law Enforcement in South Jamaica. The program would provide new clean needles to intravenous drug users in an effort to stop or slow down the spread of HIV/AIDS.
In July, there were approximately 11,784 people living with HIV/AIDS in Queens, Fontanez said, quoting statistics from the city’s Department of Health HIV Epidemiology Program Quarterly Report. Of the 11,784, there are 18 percent or 2,138 living in Jamaica.
Despite the increasing numbers, there are no SEPs offered in Queens, said Marjorie Hill, assistant commissioner of the DOH’s Bureau of HIV/AIDS. Programs are offered in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Manhattan. One Queens application was recently approved by the commissioner, she said. The location will be in Long Island City, but the site is not yet operational.
CB 12 may vote on two applications for locations in Jamaica on October 20th, said Dr. Gloria Black, chairwoman of CB 12. The two sites are the Bethesda Missionary Baptist Church, located at 179-09 Jamaica Avenue, and the Evangelical Christian Church, located at 113-02 Guy Brewer Boulevard.
The AIDS Center of Queens County will be operating the program at both sites, said Phillip S. Glotzer, ACQC executive director. ACQC has a leasing agreement with the South East Queens Clergy For Community Empowerment.
Two other applications are expected to be received from Queens Hospital and Jamaica Community Adolescent Program (J-CAP).
“We’re concerned what’s happening here in South Eastern Queens,” Black said. “It’s a problem that is soaring to epidemic proportions in our neighborhoods.”
Black offered the public a chance to voice their opinions about the program. Every speaker had a positive outlook on implementing SEPs into the community.
Two men, who both identified themselves as having AIDS, said they felt it would be a beneficial program. Another man stood up and asked why it had taken so long for the program to be implemented.
“We don’t want treatment centers in our neighborhoods,” Black said. “Therefore we fight. We tend to fight things we don’t understand.”
When the schools started distributing prophylactics to teens, she initially rejected the idea. Then she realized that you teach children to abstain, but if they fail to follow your instruction then there is protection available. It is the same concept with the exchange, Black said. Those involved in the programs aren’t encouraging drug use, but are hoping to help prevent the spread of AIDS by providing clean needles, she said.
SEPs do more than provide clean needles, said Dr. Marc Johnson, of the New York Hospital Medical Center in Queens.
“It’s really a gateway to services,” he said.
The programs provide HIV counseling, hepatitis C testing, sexually transmitted disease screening, hepatitis B vaccine, hepatitis A counseling and testing, detoxification programs, mental health therapy and drug treatment, he said.
The exchange program can be offered in health clinics, mobile vans, by walking teams and in storefronts.
Finding the right location is important, Hill said. “Drug users don’t chase syringes. They chase drugs.”
Hill said users don’t travel to get clean needles. They will use a dirty needle if a clean one is not accessible. Hill said SEPs do not bring drug users into the community. Statistics have shown arrest trends have not increased when an SEP is started in a community.
Approximately 80,000 New Yorkers are infected with AIDS, and it costs $150,000 to treat one HIV-infected patient, Hill said. The cost for a syringe exchange program is $200,000.
The program saves more than just one or two lives, Hill added. SEPs reduce the number of HIV infected patients by 50 percent, she said.
In 1991, 51 percent of illicit drug users were infected with HIV. In New York, 1 in 14 black men between the ages of 40-54 is infected with HIV.
Ronald Brinn, director of public affairs for J-CAP, said he is in the process of completing an SEP application. J-CAP has a storefront located at 107-33 Sutphin Boulevard.
Brinn feels strongly about the program and hopes to reach out to drug users and provide them another chance at life.
“We want you to live another day to reconsider,” he said. “We want to give you that needle.”