Camden--At last night's Camden City Council Caucus meeting, Council members began their first official discussion of an ordinance, introduced by Councilman Ali Sloan-El, that would establish a syringe access program in Camden. Like many cities in New Jersey, Camden has been hit hard by the AIDS epidemic, and City Council has long been supportive of sterile syringe access to prevent the spread of HIV and hepatitis C. Councilman Sloan-El said, "We feel it is a human service. We're trying to cut the spread of AIDS." The council agreed to move forward with a first reading of the ordinance at this Thursday's regular council meeting.
Camden's action comes barely two weeks after New Jersey Attorney General Peter Harvey announced that he would challenge the legal authority of Atlantic City to establish a syringe access program. At last night's caucus meeting three Atlantic City councilmen--Council President Craig Callaway, Councilman Gibb Jones, and Councilman Ramon Rosaria--showed up to express solidarity with Camden's Council and to announce that they would present the Atlantic City ordinance for first reading on June 2nd. Addressing the Camden Council, Council President Callaway said that the passage of ordinances was, "Absolutely the right thing to do morally." He spoke eloquently about losing family members and friends to AIDS and talked about how injection-related HIV and hepatitis C are ravaging communities in Atlantic City.
Roseanne Scotti, Director of the Drug Policy Alliance of New Jersey, praised the council's decision to move forward. "This is about saving lives. We know that syringe access programs are effective in reducing the spread of HIV and hepatitis C without increasing drug use," said Scotti. "We believe the city has the legal authority to establish such a program. If the state wants to challenge the city in court, I can't think of a better or more important issue to fight for."
Council chambers were filled with local supporters, including some of the most prominent members of Camden's AIDS services community. "Camden City has taken a great step forward in the fight against the AIDS epidemic by moving forward with plans to establish a needle exchange program," said Emery Troy, Chair of the Camden City HIV/AIDS Advisory Council which advises the Mayor and City Council on AIDS related issues.
New Jersey has the 5th adult HIV rate, the 3rd highest pediatric HIV rate, and the highest percentage of women infected with HIV in the nation. In addition, New Jersey's rate of injection related HIV is almost twice the national average. Despite these statistics, New Jersey has been almost alone among states in allowing no access whatsoever to sterile syringes to prevent the spread of HIV, hepatitis C, and other blood-borne diseases.
Jose Quann, coordinator of the Camden Area Health Education Center (AHEC) Neighborhood Health Van was also at the meeting and urged City Council to act. Camden AHEC is one of the organizations that Camden officials are considering for implementation of the proposed syringe access program. "Camden AHEC has a long history of providing services to Camden's injection drug using population, including HIV counseling and testing, referrals to drug treatment and other social service services," said Quann. "Adding syringe exchange services would enable us to make a real impact on injection-related HIV/AIDS, and protect the health of the community at large, by providing a way for injection drug users to properly dispose of used syringes."
Camden City Council President Angel Fuentes also announced that the council was creating an ad hoc committee made up of several representatives from public health and law enforcement to provide recommendations to Council regarding the proposed ordinance.
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