Source: New York Times (NY) Contact: http://www.nytimes.com/ Pubdate: Thu, 09 Apr 1998 Authors: Julie Bruneau and Martin T. Schechter OPINION: THE POLITICS OF NEEDLES AND AIDS Debate has started up again in Washington about whether the Government should renew its ban on subsidies for needle-exchange programs, which advocates say can help stop the spread of AIDS. In a letter to Congress, Barry McCaffrey, who is in charge of national drug policy, cited two Canadian studies to show that needle-exchange plans have failed to reduce the spread of H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS, and may even have worsened the problem. Congressional leaders have cited these studies to make the same argument. As the authors of the Canadian studies, we must point out that these officials have misinterpreted our research. True, we found that addicts who took part in needle exchange programs in Vancouver and Montreal had higher H.I.V. infection rates than addicts who did not. That's not surprising. Because these programs are in inner-city neighborhoods, they serve users who are at greatest risk of infection. Those who didn't accept free needles often didn't need them since they could afford to buy syringes in drug stores. The also were less likely to engage in the riskiest activities. Also, needle-exchange programs must be tailored to local conditions. For example, in Montreal and Vancouver, cocaine injection is a major source of H.I.V. transmission. Some users inject the drug up to 40 times a day. At that rate, we have calculated that the two cities we studied would each need 10 million clean needles a year to prevent the re-use of syringes. Currently, the Vancouver program exchanges two million syringes annually, and Montreal, half a million. A study conducted last year and published in The Lancet, the British medical journal, found that in 29 cities worldwide where programs are in place, H.I.V. infection dropped by an average of 5.8 percent a year among drug users. In 51 cities that had no needle-exchange plans, drug-related infection rose by 5.9 percent a year. Clearly these efforts can work. But clean needles are only part of the solution. A comprehensive approach that includes needle exchange, health care, treatment for drug addiction, social support and counseling is also needed. In Canada, local governments acted on our research by expanding needle exchanges and adding related services. We hope the Clinton Administration and Congress will provide the same kind of leadership in the United States. Julie Bruneau is an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Montreal. Martin T. Schechter is a professor of epidemiology at the University of British Columbia. PLEASE SEND YOUR LETTERS TO THE EDITOR: Letters must include the writer's name, address and telephone number. Those selected my be shortened for space reasons (ie. the shorter the better). Fax letters to 212-556-3622 or send by email to or by regular mail to Letters to the Editor, The New York Times, 229 West 43rd Street, New York, NY 10036.