Pubdate: Thu, 26 Mar 1998 Source: Chicago Tribune (IL) Section: 1, page 21 Contact: http://www.chicago.tribune.com/ Author: Steve Chapman THE CHILDREN CLINTON NEGLECTS We know Bill Clinton cares deeply about children because he tells us so. Hardly a day goes by that he doesn't unveil some new program to improve the lot of the little ones. Just this week, he's been in Africa proclaiming his determination to help even kids living half a world away "because we want to see the light that is in these children's eyes forever, and in the eyes of all other children." Well, maybe not all other children. Back here in America, hundreds of kids are born every year infected with the virus that causes AIDS. The president has the power to take action that would prevent many of these infections and save the lives of a lot of children who have not yet been born. But year after year, he has refused to lift a finger on their behalf. Once known as a gay men's disease, AIDS is increasingly an affliction of drug users. Every day, 33 Americans are infected with the virus because they use a contaminated syringe to inject themselves with illicit drugs--or because they are the sexual partners or the offspring of someone who did. The most tragic cases are the infants. Between July 1996 and June 1997, 552 babies emerged from the womb already infected by their mothers. Most of the mothers either used drugs intravenously or had sex with a user. Hard-hearted types can say that gay men are to blame when they contract AIDS through unsafe sex or that heroin addicts are to blame when they use dirty needles to do something that is against the law. But they can't very well blame newborns for getting the disease. Infants are in no position to take preventive measures. If they're to be spared the virus, someone else has to take preventive measures for them. The simplest one is a blindingly obvious idea known as needle exchange. AIDS activists have found that if you give drug users access to sterile syringes, lo and behold, many decide they would really prefer not to risk their lives just to get high. Needle-exchange programs let them trade their old, dirty needles for new, sterile ones, thus preventing the virus from making the jump from one addict to another. These programs have been around for more than a decade, and a wealth of experience has proven their value. In 1995, a panel of experts commissioned by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that "well-implemented needle-exchange programs can be effective in preventing the spread of HIV and do not increase the use of illegal drugs." Last year, a report issued by the National Institutes of Health said, "There is no longer any doubt that these programs work." A 1997 study in Montreal is cited by critics because it found that one needle-exchange program appeared to raise the HIV transmission rate. But the scientists who conducted the study said it should not be interpreted as evidence that needle exchange doesn't help. And the American Journal of Epidemiology, which published their report, accompanied it with an editorial saying that what drug users in Montreal need "is not less needle exchange, but more." The issue has been settled beyond serious doubt. Yet this is how much the federal government spends on AIDS prevention every year: $634 million. And this is how much of the money goes to finance needle exchange: zero. The law says federal funds cannot be used in these programs--unless the president wants them to. As of April 1, all he has to do is direct his Health and Human Services secretary, Donna Shalala, to certify that needle exchanges slow HIV transmission and do not encourage drug use--to certify, in short, what everybody knows. The president's own advisory council on AIDS recently urged him to lift the ban. White House AIDS adviser Sandra Thurman agrees. But with each new call for him to show some courage, the president has remained in hiding. An HHS spokesman says Shalala is still reviewing the scientific evidence. That makes about as much sense as reviewing who won the 1998 Super Bowl: You can rerun the videotape as many times as you want, but the score always comes out the same. Apparently her review won't be done until Jan. 20, 2001, at which point it will become someone else's headache. Why is the administration stalling? Partly because the president doesn't want to give Republicans a chance to portray him as soft on drugs. And partly because he doesn't want to have to overrule White House drug czar Barry McCaffrey. Gen. McCaffrey thinks funding needle exchange would give kids the idea that we don't really object to drug use--which is like saying that allowing alcoholics to get treated for liver ailments under Medicaid amounts to an endorsement of drunkenness. Clinton clearly would like to be remembered as the president who did more than any other to help children. But when it comes to the kids whose lives could have been saved by needle-exchange programs, he will be remembered for doing nothing.