Pubdate: Thu, 03 Aug 2000
Source: Chicago Tribune (IL)
Copyright: 2000 Chicago Tribune Company
Contact:  435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60611-4066
Author: Steve Chapman


One of George W. Bush's favorite slogans is "No child left behind,"
and the Republican national convention has set aside many hours to
catalog his devotion to kids. Al Gore has a slew of proposals on
education and health care that, we are told, will greatly improve the
lot of children. But when it comes to AIDS, the two candidates offer
the youngest Americans a whole lot of nothing.

Every year, hundreds of infants are born infected with HIV. They get
it from their mothers--most of whom got it by injecting drugs with
contaminated syringes, or by having sex with an injecting drug user.
So if you want to protect children from AIDS, you have to find a way
to prevent transmission via hypodermic needles.

That's not so hard to do. Amazingly enough, addicts don't really
prefer dirty syringes. They use them only because restrictive laws
make clean ones hard to get or expensive. So in the early years of the
epidemic, AIDS activists came up with an idea: Give drug users sterile
needles in exchange for their old ones.

If you can't stop people from injecting drugs, the thinking went,
maybe you can at least stop them from getting and transmitting the
virus. That would save not just their lives, but the lives of their
sexual partners and their future offspring.

Hard-line drug warriors scoffed, insisting this approach would merely
encourage illicit drug use while having no effect on the HIV infection
rate. On both counts, they were wrong.

In one scientific study after another, needle exchange has proven its
value. In 1997, the federal National Institutes of Health declared,
"There is no longer any doubt that these programs work." By its
estimate, needle exchange can reduce HIV infections among drug users
by 30 percent. Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala
eventually reached the same conclusion. "A meticulous scientific
review has now proven that needle exchange programs can reduce the
transmission of HIV and save lives without losing ground in the battle
against illegal drugs," she said in 1998--thus meeting the two
conditions specified by law for federal funding of such efforts.

But the Clinton administration steadfastly refused to provide any
funding. And the Republican Congress, to emphasize its disdain for
needle exchange, passed a measure prohibiting the District of Columbia
government from implementing this solution, even with non-federal money.

Obstinacy, however, hasn't solved the problem. Nearly 60 percent of
AIDS cases among women can be blamed on drug use or sex with a drug
user. Each year, 300 to 400 infants emerge from the womb afflicted by
this lethal virus. Many of these victims could have been spared by the
simplest of preventives: a clean syringe.

The Republican convention gave a prominent speaking spot to Patricia
Funderburk Ware, head of the Family Well-Being Foundation and an
advocate of sex education that stresses abstinence. Ware said we need
to "insure that not one more American, especially an innocent newborn
baby, has to live with this awful disease."

But she never said a word about dirty needles--which is like talking
about obesity without mentioning food. There's nothing wrong with
promoting sexual abstinence among adolescents, but the infants with
HIV didn't get it because they were promiscuous. They got it because
one of their parents used a syringe that was fatally contaminated with
the virus.

So advocates of needle exchange shouldn't expect anything from a
Republican administration--or from a Democratic one. In this front of
the AIDS war, President Clinton has been a conscientious objector,
spending his entire term finding reasons not to act. Gore is somewhat
more promising: He reportedly advised Clinton to lift the ban, and in
a private meeting with two AIDS activists at the 1996 Democratic
convention, he said he supported federal funding.

But Wayne Turner, a spokesman for ACT UP Washington, one of those who
met with the vice president, dismisses that statement. "Please
emphasize that I don't believe him," he says. "I have absolutely no
faith in this administration, including Gore."

Selling needle exchange to the American people as the best way to
protect infants from AIDS would not be that hard, since that's exactly
what it is. Besides stemming the epidemic without fostering drug use,
these programs make perfect fiscal sense. A new syringe costs less
than 8 cents. Treating a patient with AIDS costs about $150,000.

You would think one of the two candidates would embrace needle
exchange simply because it would save the lives of blameless children.
But neither has, and neither is about to. So maybe they could agree on
a joint slogan: Some children left to die.
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MAP posted-by: Larry Stevens