Funding Ban on Needle Exchanges Costs Money and Lives

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), September 24, 2006 | Go to article overview

Funding Ban on Needle Exchanges Costs Money and Lives


Byline: GUEST VIEWPOINT By Sarah-Kate Sharkey and Riann Nel For The Register-Guard

HIV Alliance is in the forefront of the battle to prevent new infections and to care for those living with HIV/AIDS in Lane County. Our battle is not the most attention-grabbing `war' of the moment, and agencies in the trenches of this war are severely hampered by ignorance - not least the ignorance of our elected representatives. With congressional elections approaching in November, we want to highlight one aspect of our battle: the fight for needle exchange programs.

The World Health Organization estimates more than 25 million people have been killed by AIDS since the disease was recognized in 1981. Some estimates place the 2005 death toll at 3.1 million - an average of 8,500 people every day. This makes it one of the most destructive pandemics in history.

Although other problems and challenges seem to have priority in our minds, the scope of the AIDS pandemic worldwide is increasing. The human tragedy of this disease plays out every day as 8,500 families lose loved ones.

HIV Alliance has been operating an injection drug use outreach program for the past seven years. This program provides injection drug users with clean needles as part of a comprehensive health care strategy to prevent the reuse and sharing of contaminated needles. Sharing contaminated needles is a major cause of the spread of HIV.

Injection drug use is the No. 1 way HIV presents itself to the heterosexual community and is the No. 1 cause of pediatric HIV. A recent report estimates that one in 50 kids in school today will have experimented with injection drug use by the time they graduate. There are an estimated 10,000 injection drug users in Lane County.

It is a misconception that injection drug users are only homeless people under bridges. A significant percentage of injection drug users in Lane County are parents, professionals, business owners and students.

HIV Alliance's needle exchange program is part of a comprehensive harm-reduction strategy. The aim is not only to exchange dirty needles, but to provide education about risk-reduction strategies and encourage- ment for at-risk people to test for HIV on a regular basis. Referrals to other medical, detox, drug treatment and social service agencies are provided. Free HIV testing and counseling are available.

The New England Journal of Medicine reported this year that injection drug users who access needle exchange services weekly are twice as likely to enter detox.

Controversy has surrounded needle exchange programs in the U.S. since their inception. Critics argue that providing drug users with the opportunity to exchange dirty needles encourages and condones drug use and the associated criminality. In the 1990s, Congress sided with the critics and placed a moratorium on the use of federal funds for needle exchange programs.

HIV Alliance is heavily dependent upon limited private funding for our program. Without increased support by Oct. 31, our program will have to be suspended, presenting a serious threat to the health of our community.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, up to 40 percent of new infections in the country can be related to injection drug use. Furthermore, an international study demonstrated that 52 cities without needle exchange programs experienced, on average, a 5.9 percent increase in HIV infection rates each year compared with a 5.8 percent decrease in 29 cities with needle exchange programs (study published in 1997 in the medical journal Lancet). …

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