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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Hillsborough's forward step on public health

Hillsborough County commissioners took a guarded but encouraging step in agreeing to explore a needle exchange program. This initiative could save lives, improve public health and get residents who need it into substance abuse treatment. Commissioners should follow through quickly on this exploratory stage and get the program going as soon as possible.

Needle exchanges are neither new nor novel ideas. They aim to slow the spread of blood-borne infectious diseases like hepatitis C and HIV by encouraging drug users to swap used needles and syringes for clean ones instead of sharing infected needles. The exchanges are also used as gateways to get intravenous drug users into substance abuse treatment.

Hillsborough commissioners weren't prepared to fully commit this month, but they directed the county's Health Care Services staff to explore what it would take to start a needle exchange. Staff will gather input from a county panel of 52 health care experts, researchers and community service providers before a final recommendation comes back to the commission for a vote.

Commissioner Sandy Murman captured the torn emotion of many who question government acting as an enabler. But with drug abuse rampant across the state, it's beyond time to be practical. Just consider the numbers from Miami-Dade, which runs the only pilot project in the state. Since being enacted in 2016, its 2018 annual report showed, the program has exchanged more than 186,000 used needles and distributed more than 1,300 boxes of the overdose-reversal drug Narcan. During the first half of 2017, there were 133 fatal overdoses compared with 217 for the second half of the previous year. Meanwhile, the overall death rate in Miami-Dade related to HIV/AIDS has also lowered while the pilot program has been in operation.

It appears science and the facts are guiding the commission's decision, which is encouraging for a process that's still in the formative stage. State lawmakers signed off on a bill in the recent legislative session that allows other Florida counties to follow Miami-Dade's lead. This is pressing public health concern worthy of Hillsborough's support.