More Bad News-Needle Exchange

With everything else going on, some very bad news has slipped by without a lot of public attention.

As most RBC readers know, every major public health expert body from the Institute of Medicine to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to UNAIDS and the World Health Organization, to the White House Office of Drug Control Policy endorses syringe exchange as an effective and cost-effective strategy to prevent HIV and other blood-borne infection among injection drug users.

Despite this evidence, Philip Smith and Maia Szalavitz report, Congress just restored the ban on federal funding for syringe exchange after the Senate took the final votes to approve the 2012 federal omnibus spending bill.

I’ll have more to say when I get a change to learn more about the practical impact. It’s especially regrettable that the bill hinders support for evidence-based international programs that support syringe exchange. There is a fight for life against AIDS around the world. This is very detrimental.

The below press release from the AIDS Foundation of Chicago tells the basic word:

AFC Statement on Federal Funding Ban for Syringe Exchanges Monday, 19 December 2011 19:23

On Friday, December 16, Congress sent President Obama the final fiscal year 2012 appropriations bill, which reinstates a prohibition on using federal funding to support syringe exchanges. We implore President Obama to condemn the federal funding ban in the strongest language possible and begin working immediately for its repeal.

“Reinstating the ban on federal syringe exchange funding is a terrible setback and a clear rejection of science and human rights,” said David Ernesto Munar, president/CEO of AIDS Foundation of Chicago. “The debate about needle exchanges was settled in 2009. Congress and the President are reversing a major public health gain at a time in the AIDS epidemic when we cannot afford to take steps backward.”

The federal ban on funding for syringe exchanges was enacted in the 1980s, and was repealed in 2009 by Congress and President Obama. Nine states and one city (Chicago) applied to the federal government to use $2.7 million federal funding for syringe exchanges, according to the National Association of State and Territorial AIDS Directors. Advocates hailed the lifting of the ban as a victory for scienceâ€based HIV prevention services.

“We are dismayed that this year Congress threw in the towel when it comes to HIV prevention. They beat back provisions restricting abortion, workers’ rights and pollution enforcement,” Munar said. “Why aren’t people at risk of HIV just as important?”

By reinstating the federal funding ban, Congress is ignoring irrefutable scientific evidence that syringe exchanges reduce HIV and hepatitis transmission, increase participation in substance abuse treatment, and, in fact, do not encourage drug use.

Progressive sterile syringe exchange policies in Illinois have reduced by twoâ€thirds HIV cases among injection drug users since 2001, saving an estimated $200 million in lifetime medical costs.

In July 2010, President Obama released the National HIV/AIDS Strategy, which calls for a 25 percent reduction in new HIV cases by 2015. The strategy lists syringe exchanges as one several “scientifically proven biomedical and behavioral approaches that reduce the probability of HIV transmission.”

We are committed to working anew to repeal the federal ban on funding for syringe exchanges. We call on our state and national legislators to do the same.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is the Helen Ross Professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago.