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9.18.2012

Medical Students Rally to Enact Clean Syringe Programs in Florida

In an unprecedented move that could significantly reduce the spread of infectious diseases, the Florida Medical Association voted at its annual meeting in July to seek legislation that will legalize syringe exchange programs for injection drug users. The resolution, submitted by the FMA’s Medical Student Section, was written by Miller School students Marek Hirsch and Hansel Tookes.

If passed, the legislation will amend Chapter 893 of the Florida Statutes, which currently prohibits the transfer of a clean needle to a person known to inject illegal drugs. In Miami, one in five injection drug users are HIV positive and an estimated one in three users have Hepatitis C. The programs, many believe, would significantly decrease transmission of infectious diseases among the city’s more than 10,000 injection drug users.

Inspired by Tookes’ study “A comparison of syringe disposal practices among injection drug users in a city with versus a city without syringe exchange programs” which was published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence in December 2011, the efforts are a prime example of translational research. He says injection drug users are not the only ones who stand to benefit from the legislation.

“As evidenced in our comparison of used syringe disposal in Miami to that in San Francisco, a city with established syringe exchange programs, Miami had eight times as many syringes on the streets,” said Tookes. “This presents an obvious risk of accidental needle sticks and transmission of infectious diseases to the community.”

After the Medical Student Section’s unanimous vote to endorse the resolution, Hirsch and Tookes presented it at the FMA Board of Governors’ quarterly meeting, where it was heavily debated.

Despite the recommendation of the Reference Committee on Legislation that the FMA House of Delegates adopt the resolution, naysayers claimed data on the issue was not reliable and cited a study against syringe exchange programs.

But thanks to compelling reports presented by UM’s FMA medical student delegate Chanelle Diaz, the amendment that would have referred the resolution for further study – indefinitely delaying efforts — was defeated.

“Passing the resolution was not easy,” said Diaz, an M.D./M.P.H. student. “The opposition tried to distract us from the facts, but our arguments were well supported by the Institute of Medicine, World Health Organization and the National Institutes of Health.”

Stephen Symes, M.D., associate professor of medicine, and Loretta Ciraldo, M.D., voluntary professor of dermatology and cutaneous surgery, also spoke in support of the resolution.

A physician who led the opposition later admitted, “After being defeated by the medical students, I know not to step in front of a moving train.”

The next stop is the Florida Legislature.

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