The 19th International AIDS Conference, held this year, discussed many exciting and revolutionary ways to fight HIV, but, as one NPR correspondent, Richard Knox pointed out, didn’t say much about the well-proven needle exchange programs. Needle and syringe exchange programs, a form of harm reduction, are locations in which injection drug users can exchange old syringes or simply get fresh ones. Additionally, they often have educational resources about safe injection practices, counseling, HIV-testing, and information about drug rehabilitation programs.
Depending upon the needle exchange program, it may be out of a building, a van, or even a vending machine (AVERT). While it all sounds a little confusing—providing drug addicts with the tools that help them feed their addictions—when implemented with sufficient needle exchange sites and needles, needle exchange programs consistently reduce the incidence and spread of HIV in the intravenous drug-using population.
The research supports needle exchange programs’ capability for decreasing the transmission of HIV. Amsterdam’s HIV problem is largely null due to needle exchanges (Knox). One study carried out in a single year found, in a survey of 81 cities across the world, that those cities with needle exchange programs decreased their HIV infection rates by 5.8%, while cities without such programs increased theirs by 5.9% (AVERT). Trang Nguyen estimates that increasing the United States needle exchange program federally by 10% would prevent 500 HIV infections and long term would have a net benefit of $193 million by preventing medical treatment costs. As if that’s not enough proof, the World Health Organization concluded that needle exchange programs decrease the spread of HIV.
In the United States, there currently are around 200 needle exchanges that are operating privately or with the support of local and state governments. Congress banned all federal support to needle exchange programs (Knox). This leads to one primary question: On what basis did congress ban needle exchange programs?
One argument against needle exchange programs is that they would likely increase the population of intravenous drug users by making the practice appear safe. Additionally, there is the ideological philosophy that we should not be helping individuals use illegal drugs more safely.
To a certain degree, these are philosophical biases. There is no research showing that providing clean needles to drug users promotes drug use in any way; in fact the World Health Organization commented on the lack of such evidence when they conducted a study of programs in different countries. Furthermore, underlying the idea that we should not help illicit drug users continue to use, there seems to be a moralistic judgment against drug users.
The Vatican is decidedly against harm reduction, perhaps for this exact reason. One pro-harm reduction group criticized the Vatican, saying, “By making a statement against harm reduction, the Vatican has indicated that its moral objection to drug use is more important than its commitment to the sanctity of life” (AVERT).
I feel that the Vatican can have whatever moralistic opinion that they want; however, it is a shame that they are setting an example of intolerance for the addict who is still suffering without putting the spread of HIV in the general population and the drug addict population first. For governments to ignore the strong evidence supporting the economic and health benefits of needle exchanges baffles me and demonstrates a strong bias against helping drug users.
AVERT. Needle Exchange and Harm Reduction. n.d. 13 August 2012.
Knox, Richard. In HIV prevention, needle exchange programs are often overlooked. 24 July 2012. article. 13 August 2012.
By Emily F.
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