December 4, 2008

Fighting AIDS with clean needles

One in five cases of HIV/AIDS contamination occurs as a result of intravenous drug use. And it doesn't seem like our whole War on Drugs operation has been terribly successful so far. Needle exchange programs are a hard-nosed strategic effort that work within the realities of drug abuse in order to prevent even more dangerous problems that can result from it. And the programs are remarkably effective.

Research indicates that cities with needle exchange programs saw an 11% decrease in infections-by-syringe as compared to cities without such programs. Moreover, public health experts are virtually unanimous in agreement that the programs neither increase drug usage nor decrease the rates of enrollment in drug treatment programs.

Yet for almost a decade, the federal government rejected such programs – banning the use of federal funding for them. Even after most states had moved ahead to fund needle exchanges on their own, Washington DC was left until very recently without funding for them – even though our city has one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS in the country.

At the start of this year, the ban was finally lifted. (Bread for the City worked alongside other advocates in the successful fight against it.) City funding was freed up for needle exchange programs, and Bread for the City was one of the first recipients.

But it’s worth noting that our needle exchange program was operational for years before the ban on funding was lifted. We did it under additional strain on our budget, when most other organizations weren’t willing or able to pay for it. “We did it because we don’t stick our heads in the sand,” says our deputy director, Jeannine Sanford, “because we do what’s going to save lives. We do what works.”

The end! Well sort of, though there’s an interesting recent twist to the story.

President-elect Barack Obama has pointedly expressed his support for needle exchange programs, but currently placed at the top of his list for a potential Drug Czar appointment is Republican Representative James Ramstad who has, according to the Community HIV/AIDS Mobilization Project (CHAMP), voted “to make permanent the federal funding ban on syringe exchange, to ban Washington DC from spending its own locally raised funds on syringe exchange programs in 2000, and against lifting the same DC ban in 2007.”

CHAMP is calling for public opposition to Ramstad’s appointment. And yet, President-elect Obama has plainly stated that policy will be set primarily from his office, rather than his appointments. Ramstad’s inclusion very well may be an encouraging sign of coalition building among once-divergent perspectives, working towards a more coherent and effective drug policy.

See this clip from Rachel Maddow’s show earlier this week for more on this. And as always, stay tuned.

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