End of needle exchange marks loss of a bulwark in D.C.'s AIDS fight

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The District's largest needle exchange program, Prevention Works, closed its doors on Feb. 25 after exchanging about 100,000 needles for 2,200 people last year. Its closure leaves many without a resource for clean needles.

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 24, 2011; 1:51 PM

They are a tough sell for sympathy, the addicts.

One couple rolls up in a primer-gray hooptie. She's got toothpick legs, one improbably skinnier than the other. Her skeletal frame is swimming in a child's Bugs Bunny denim jacket.

He's scary skinny, too, with withered teeth sticking out of white gums and a mean streak.

"How can they do this? I thought this was supposed to stop the AIDS. What, they want more people to get the AIDS?" he snarls at the folks who tell him the brown paper bag they're giving him is the last batch of free needles he'll get.

The needle exchange program is dead. Because of a drop in private donations, city budget delays and other financial woes, it will close Feb. 25.

The man goes on: "I've been coming here for, I dunno, about 10 years. What am I gonna do now?"

They screech away in the car, mouths still moving behind their dirty windows, screaming obscenities at the volunteers who will no longer be there for them.

What are we going to do now? We are the nation's HIV/AIDS capital. Our infection rate has skyrocketed to 3 percent. That's worse than some of the West African countries that have declared it an epidemic.

For 12 years, the beige RV that is the PreventionWorks rolling needle exchange program has pulled up to the curb at Marvin Gaye Park in Northeast Washington on Friday afternoons.

There's a long line along the sidewalk, and folks take turns stepping inside, shutting the metal door behind them. They are surprisingly punctual.

There are the ornery, leatherfaced, habitual drug users you would expect. They don't really want to hear about counseling or group meetings or anything like that. They're shooting their way to their graves.

But there was also a woman in a long, black cardigan, pretty jewelry and freshly done hair. She wants off drugs, she's got a wound, and she's afraid to go to the hospital.


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