Pubdate: Tue, 08 Mar 2005
Source: Chicago Tribune (IL)
Copyright: 2005 Chicago Tribune Company


Clean-needle programs have been shown to be effective in controlling the 
spread of HIV, hepatitis and other diseases by protecting intravenous drug 
addicts from contaminated syringes. Illinois has had needle-exchange 
programs since the 1980s, and in 2003 legalized the over-the-counter 
purchase of hypodermic needles. Buyers receive information on how to use 
the needles as well as where to get help if they are addicts.

And yet, resistance in Washington to such efforts has been strong. Congress 
prohibited the use of federal funds for such programs unless they were 
found effective by the Department of Health and Human Services. Former 
President Bill Clinton declined to lift that ban, even though his HHS 
secretary made such a finding. President Bush has made no move to lift the ban.

And now some in Congress want to cut off American support for international 
organizations that provide clean-needle exchanges. Given the reach of U.S. 
efforts on AIDS, for this country to stop funding organizations that 
provide needle exchanges would be a blow to worldwide efforts to contain 
the epidemic.

Though Bush's AIDS program is concentrated in Africa, where the virus 
spreads mostly through sexual contact, AIDS also is ravaging parts of 
Eastern Europe, Russia, Central Asia and China. There, 50 to 80 percent of 
the people infected by HIV are drug addicts.

Clean-needle or needle-exchange programs are admittedly an imperfect 
solution. They don't cure addiction, and narcotics destroy addicts' bodies 
and minds. But clean needles lessen the chances of addicts contracting AIDS 
and infecting their sexual partners and their unborn children. Most 
important, clean needles offer the hope of breaking the chain of contagion.

Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.), is leading the effort to restrict U.S. funding 
for international groups that, an aide says, "distribute paraphernalia for 
the consumption of illegal drugs." Souder would direct funds only to 
prevention and drug rehabilitation efforts.

It's not hard to understand the position of opponents--they object to the 
government providing the means for addicts to feed their habits. Many 
studies, though, have found that needle-exchange programs help to reduce 
HIV infections and intravenous drug use.

Souder cites a study of a needle-exchange program in Vancouver that, 
according to his spokesman, demonstrated the "HIV and hepatitis epidemics 
exploded in the aftermath of the introduction of needle-exchange programs, 
as did the drug epidemic."

But the doctors who conducted the Vancouver study wrote, in an April letter 
to the director of the National Institutes of Health, that Souder's 
interpretation of the data was incorrect. "For Mr. Souder to take the 
Vancouver data out of context, is selective and self-serving," they wrote.

Medical and legal groups from the American Public Health Association to the 
American Bar Association have strongly endorsed needle-exchange programs. 
They are an essential item to fight the spread of AIDS here and abroad. 
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