Medical student pushes needle exchanges

MIAMI - A third-year student at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine is pushing a five-year pilot program to legalize syringe and needle exchanges.

"You see drug bags, you see the caps and you ultimately find the syringe," said Hansel Tookes. "First day we went out, we found a bunch of syringes. Every day we went out, we found syringes in every part of the city."

Tookes believes a needle exchange program requiring users to turn in dirty needles to get new ones would help reduce the number of new HIV cases in Miami. Law enforcement has spoken out against a needle exchange program, arguing that they increase drug use.

"It has not been shown to increase drug use in 35 states. People who use needle exchange programs actually get drug treatment referral, [they] are more likely to get drug treatment," said Tookes. 

Tookes found a man using a syringe in Miami Park.

"It was very dramatic to see his injection sites and just the lack of sterility," said Tookes. "He said he got the syringe a few feet away, where he keeps it. Who knows who uses it. He also says he has hepatitis."

Tookes argues that the program saves taxpayer money. The cost of a needle is about $1, while the estimated lifetime cost of health care for someone with HIV is about $600,000.

"I've seen the people hospitalized with cellulitis who require IV antibiotics for a week to clear their infection," said Tookes. 

"You're just hoping they come in for a primary care visit or whatever else might bring them in," said Mareck Hirsch, a fourth-year medical student, "but often times, it's too late down the road. They already have the diseases and that's why they are coming in to see a medical professional."

Miami has the highest rate of HIV with the largest number of new infections per population.

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