Friday, June 29, 2007

Saving Lives With Syringes

In a move that’s been applauded by public health officials and AIDS activists, the U.S. House of Representatives has lifted a nine-year-old ban on using D.C. tax dollars to provide clean needles to drug addicts.

The White House opposed lifting the needle ban, as did many Republicans and some Democrats. Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.) tried to push through a last minute amendment to restore the prohibition, saying that needle-exchange programs "merely subsidize heroin use." But yesterday the House voted 216-208 to reject the amendment.

“This is a huge step in helping to reduce HIV and AIDS in Washington, DC,” said Naomi Long, director of the Washington Metro office for the Drug Policy Alliance. “We are pleased that Congress decided to stop playing politics with the lives of intravenous drug users in D.C. at a time when the District is suffering from a HIV/AIDS crisis.”

In Washington, DC, injecting drugs is the second-most common means of contracting HIV among men – and the most common form among women, according to Drug Policy Alliance. Approximately one-third of new AIDS cases annually are the result of intravenous drug use.

In 1998, the Republican-led Congress barred the District Government from spending its own local funds on syringe exchange programs. The ban has been reauthorized in appropriations bills every year since. But with Democrats now in power, the push to lift the ban gained traction.

"For too long, Congress has unfairly imposed on the citizens of D.C. by trying out their social experiments there," said Rep. Jose E. Serrano, (D-N.Y.), quoted by the Washington Post. "The ban on needle exchanges was one of the most egregious of these impositions, especially because the consensus is clear that these programs save lives."

In Philadelphia, where needle exchange operating under Prevention Point Philadelphia has been publicly financed since 1992, public health officials have seen a marked decrease in HIV infections.

The HIV Prevention Research Division of the Center for Studies of Addiction at the University of Pennsylvania has been conducting HIV-related studies since 1989 to investigate the spread of HIV among injection drug users in Philadelphia.

During the first two years of the study—prior to the establishment of a syringe-exchange program in Philadelphia—the rate of new HIV infections among injection drug users was among the highest rates of HIV infection observed in the United States.

But in the years following the establishment of a citywide exchange, the rate of new HIV infections dropped from 6.8% per year to less than 0.05% per year.

“This correlation between reductions in new infections and the establishment of syringe exchange services is consistent with a large body of research that clearly establishes the public health benefits of providing sterile injection equipment -- and collecting used syringes -- to active drug users,” PPP said.