Source: The Herald, Everett, WA
Contact:  Tue, 09 Dec 1997

Health Board Should Keep Needle Exchange Program

The countywide Snohomish Health Board will decide today whether to continue
an inexpensive needle exchange program aimed at saving lives. Since lives
are just a valuable now as a year ago, the board should keep the program in

If the past is any guide, the board will be divided. There are legitimate
reasons for board members to ask whether providing needles somehow endorses
illegal drug use.

Studies show that the fear is unfounded. Repeated examinations of both
needle exchanges and condom programs have failed to demonstrate any increase
in drug use or sexual activity.

Needle exchanges do, however, cut the spread of blood borne diseases,
including AIDS. They also provide outreach workers the chance to educate
needle recipients and move them toward therapy and drug treatment. Those
efforts constitute the true message of the program: a positive statement for
live and for healthy, moral lifestyles.

The county spends $10,000 per year to have a private contractor operate the
program. Medical treatment for a single case of AIDS can easily run
$175,000. Those figures make prevention economical, as well as lifesaving.

In the first nine months of this year, the program resulted in referrals of
more than 700 people to drug treatment programs. Approximately 80,000
needles were exchanged over that time period, creating real protection for
many people. At the same time, the exchange helps keep needles out of public
parks and trash, because used needles must be returned in order for the drug
user to obtain new ones.

In countless ways, public officials here and across the country have clearly
delivered the message that illegal drug usage is dangerous and unacceptable.
There's no risk of mixed messages created by showing a simple desire to save
lives through needle exchanges. A variety of approaches, from punishment to
treatment, are needed in discouraging people from engaging in illegal drug
use. Despite society's increasing efforts, however, illegal drugs continue
to be injected by some addicts. And they won't stop simply because clean
needles aren't available.

The needle exchange program offers a proven avenue for building trust and
persuading drug users into treatment programs. Until they take better
control of their lives, however, they are at extreme risk if they share
needles. Nationally, more than onethird of adult AIDS cases involve drug
injections. That's a risk which studies have shown is substantially reduced
in areas where needle exchange programs operate.

With its successes in getting people into drug treatment, the exchange
program not only saves lives but also changes them. And those are the
reasons the board ought to continue the needle exchange.