Pubdate: Thu, 26 Mar 1998
Source: Chicago Tribune (IL)
Section: 1, page 21
Author: Steve Chapman


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

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.