Pubdate: Wed, 22 Apr 1998 Source: New York Times (NY) Contact: http://www.nytimes.com/ Author: Linda Richardson AGENCIES DEFEND NEEDLE EXCHANGE PROGRAMS From a rumbling Winnebago parked on an East Harlem street yesterday, Mikki Hidalgo had a few words for the Clinton Administration, which had declined to lift a ban on Federal financing for needle exchange programs the day before. She wanted to invite the Washington power brokers for a visit to see what she sees. Ms. Hidalgo works with a community agency that has strived for years to prevent drug addicts from using dirty needles in an effort to stop the spread of the virus that causes AIDS. "They need to face reality firsthand and see the difference it makes," said Ms. Hidalgo, a health worker for From Our Streets With Dignity, a social service agency based in Chelsea that sets up shop in two vans every Tuesday morning at Park Avenue and 124th Street. Yesterday was a time of anger but also of sobering reflection for the health workers who provide clean needles to addicts. On Monday, the Clinton Administration said it would not lift the nine-year-old financing ban, even as the Government's top scientists certified that needle exchange programs do not encourage drug abuse and could save lives -- not just those of addicts, but also those of their sex partners and their children -- by stemming the spread of AIDS. "It's a bunch of politics," said Scott Horn, director of outreach for the agency. "It's been proven time and time again that clean syringes save lives and the programs open up avenues for other sorts of treatment." For drug addicts like Jill Hollingsworth who participate in needle exchange programs, the news from Washington was not as important as the business of trying to survive on the streets. A slip of a woman with a diamond stud in her nose, Ms. Hollingsworth, 34, is a longtime user of speedballs, a potent mix of heroin and cocaine that she injects to get high. Ms. Hollingsworth said she wants to quit. She also wants to stay alive, free of human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS. So yesterday morning, she trailed behind two health workers who were passing out fliers in East Harlem. "I have seen people who would already be dead if it had not been for the needle exchanges," said Ms. Hollingsworth, who left the vans with seven fresh needles, "and I could very well be one of those people." From Our Streets With Dignity is one of nine needle exchange programs in New York City that serve about 55,000 of the city's estimated 200,000 intravenous drug users, according to the State Health Department. As many as half of the city's drug users are estimated to be infected with H.I.V. New York is one of the few states that make it a crime to possess or use syringe needles without a prescription. The needle exchange programs operate with waivers from the Department of Health, which provides them with financing. At Positive Health Project, a needle exchange program that serves more than 3,000 drug users in midtown Manhattan, Jason Farrell, the executive director, viewed the decision from Washington as a lost opportunity. "It's sidestepping once again. This was an excellent opportunity for the United States Government to reduce unnnecessary infections and deaths." Joyce Rivera, who runs St. Ann's Corner of Harm Reduction in the Bronx, said that if the Federal ban had been lifted, more money would have been available to create new needle exchange programs and to expand existing ones that are understaffed and underfinanced. "The science is there," said Ms. Rivera, whose program serves about 4,000 drug users. Still, others remained resolute in their belief that needle exchange programs are bad news, including Gov. Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey. "I strongly concur with the opinion of the national drug chief that needle exchange programs send the wrong message to our children by condoning illegal drug use," the Governor said in a statement.