A Shot at Curbing the AIDS Epidemic

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and Rep. Jose E. Serrano (D-N.Y.) should be congratulated for accomplishing last year what many said was impossible: repealing the federal ban prohibiting the District from spending its own money on syringe exchange programs to reduce the spread of HIV-AIDS, hepatitis C and other infectious diseases. Because of their leadership, thousands of lives will be saved. If Congress takes the next step and repeals the national syringe ban, hundreds of thousands of lives could be saved.

The local funding ban could not have been lifted at a more critical time. A D.C. government report released in November showed that Washington still has the highest HIV-AIDS rate in the nation. Nearly 21 percent of all cases of HIV transmission in the District are attributable to injection drug use.

The D.C. government recently announced that it wpuld invest $650,000 in needle exchange programs to combat the spread of HIV-AIDS [Metro, Jan. 3]. The city should be applauded for this move. It is a major investment toward the creation of a comprehensive continuum of care for drug users that includes getting people into drug treatment and linking them to medical care, rapid HIV counseling and testing, and a comprehensive medication adherence program.

Still, more needs to be done.

The District should amend its paraphernalia laws to make clean syringes more accessible through pharmacies, increase the number of beds in local detox centers, and increase the length of stay for drug treatment clients. District officials should also make good on their promise to improve HIV testing practices, counseling and comprehensive treatment for people in the D.C. jail.

As part of the national fight against AIDS, Congress should repeal the national funding ban that prohibits cities from using their share of federal AIDS prevention money on syringe exchange programs. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), of the 415,193 people reported to be living with AIDS in the United States at the end of 2004, about 30 percent of cases were related to injection drug use, either directly (sharing contaminated syringes) or indirectly (having sex with someone who used a contaminated syringe or being born to a mother who used a contaminated syringe).

The CDC, along with the American Medical Association and numerous other scientific bodies, contends that syringe exchange programs are highly effective at preventing the spread of HIV-AIDS and other infectious diseases. Moreover, seven federal reports have found that increasing access to sterile syringes saves lives without increasing drug use.

As many as 300,000 Americans could contract HIV-AIDS or hepatitis C over the next decade because of a lack of access to sterile syringes. This essentially makes the national syringe ban a death sentence for drug users, their partners and children. Members of Congress could spare their lives by repealing the ban. The question is, will they?

-- Naomi Long -- Bill Piper


The writers are, respectively, director of the Washington office and director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance.

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