Advocates Want Federal Financing of Drug Needle Exchange

By Nathan Burchfiel | July 7, 2008 | 8:23 PM EDT

( - The federal government should change its view of illegal drug use and fund needle exchange programs that could help reduce new cases of HIV infection from dirty syringes, according to a group that advocates for drug addicts.

"The AIDS epidemic will continue to spread unless government leaders on all level [sic] - local, state, federal and international - embrace and support syringe exchange," according to the Harm Reduction Coalition (HRC).

Syringe exchange programs allow drug users to turn in used needles and receive clean needles to avoid sharing dirty, possibly infected needles with other drug users.

The HRC states that "an estimated one third of all HIV cases outside of sub-Saharan Africa stem from injection drug use" and that government-funded needle exchanges would reduce the number of new infections.

A report released Friday by the Joint United Nations Programme on AIDS estimated that between 2001 and 2004, 17 percent of new AIDS cases among men and 20 percent in women were the result of non-sterile drug injection equipment. The report estimated that among men, 44 percent of new cases were the result of unprotected homosexual contact.

Other areas of the world have seen higher dirty-needle infection rates than the United States, according to the report. It estimated that 44 percent of Chinese people with HIV contracted it from drug needles. Two-thirds of new HIV cases in Eastern Europe and Central Asia were attributed to the use of dirty needles.

The HRC called on Congress and the Bush administration to use the 19th annual World AIDS Day, observed Dec. 1, to free up federal funds for syringe exchange and promote the programs internationally.

"Congress has maintained a ban on the use of any federal monies for syringe exchange, starving programs of vital resources and contradicting effective public health strategies," HRC stated in a release. "Similarly, the White House has vehemently opposed syringe exchange in the global fight against AIDS."

Congress in 1988 banned the use of federal money "to provide individuals with hypodermic needles or syringes so that such individuals may use illegal drugs." Federal funding of exchange programs could be approved if the U.S. surgeon general and president agree that there is evidence to prove the programs reduce illegal drug use in addition to slowing the spread of HIV.

Allen Clear, executive director of the HRC, said an ideal exchange program would take "a used and potentially contaminated syringe from a drug user and [replace] it with at least one sterile syringe but hopefully as many as the drug user needs to keep themselves safe."

In a statement to Cybercast News Service, the Office of the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator stood behind the ban on federal funding of exchange programs.

"Since the previous administration, the U.S. Government has opposed needle exchange programs, as these programs are not consistent with the goal of reducing illegal drug use," the coordinator's office said.

"We believe that a comprehensive program that addresses prevention and treatment is the best way to reduce the overall abuse of illicit drugs," according to the statement, "and thereby lead to a decrease in the rates of HIV and other blood borne infections through shared needles."

The office, headed by Ambassador Mark Dybul, said President Bush "supports activities that address the needs of [intravenous drug users], such as peer outreach, links to relapse centers and helping HIV-positive drug users access treatment and other support services."

Clear said that supporting syringe exchange programs doesn't pardon illegal drug use. "It's not condoning it," he told Cybercast News Service, "it's saving people's lives."

Clear, a native of southern England, added that while many local governments and private charities already support needle exchanges, it's important for the federal government to fund them because "it's up to the federal government to provide as much health care as possible for its citizens."

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