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Risking Lives: In 2012 Spending Deal, House GOP Slaps Ban on Federally Funded Syringe Exchange Programs

 
 
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 As part of Congress' attempt to finally wrap up spending bills for fiscal year 2012, House Republicans imposed spending cuts that may cost the U.S., and the world, by creating thousands of new HIVAids and Hepatitis C cases per year. Obama repealed a 21-year old ban on federal funding for syringe exchange programs in 2009, and since then, local programs have proven to be immensely successful in preventing HIV/AIDs and Hepatitis C infection. But now, the GOP has passed restrictive language in three separate appropriation bills, and succeeded in having two of three bans in the compromise that will be voted on today, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. The House GOP did not only impose a ban that will affect Americans, but also restricted State Department funds for syringe access in international programs. In countries where injection drug use drives HIV/AIDS epidemic, the international funding ban will only work to proliferate disease. 

“The federal syringe funding ban was costly in both human and fiscal terms – it is outrageous that Congress is restoring it given how overwhelming and clear the science is in support of making sterile syringes widely available,” said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “Make no mistake about it – members of Congress who supported this ban have put the lives of their constituents in jeopardy.” 

Maia Szalavitz explained her personal experience with, and the benefits of, needle exchange programs in Time:

If a San Francisco outreach worker on vacation in New York hadn’t taught me how to protect myself, I probably wouldn’t be here to write this story. The man she was staying with in the city — with whom I frequently took drugs — was HIV-positive.

Indeed, 50% of IV drug users in New York City in the 1980s had HIV. That percentage has dropped to 16% today, falling steeply after the introduction of needle exchange programs. Today, infection is far more common among those without access to needle exchange or legal access to clean syringes. When educated and empowered, people like me will protect themselves and others: that’s one thing needle exchange teaches.  I’ve now been in recovery for 23 years.

But back when I was still using, half of all new HIV diagnoses in New York were linked to injection drug use. Secondary transmission by those infected via needles was responsible for most heterosexual and pediatric cases too. Today, just 4.3% of new infections are linked to IV drug use, meaning far fewer chances for heterosexual exposure. (New York no longer sees new HIV infections in babies, in part because mother-to-child transmission can be prevented with medication).

Washington, D.C., by contrast, has long been hampered by the federal ban on funding for needle-exchange programs; a particularly heartless Congressional ban even prevented D.C. from using its own local money for the purpose. In 2008, however, the local ban was lifted (it’s not clear if the new budget agreement will reinstate this ban). The capital’s Department of Health then funded a large expansion of private needle-exchange programs, enrolling 3,000 additional drug users and exchanging nearly a million needles. By 2010, D.C. saw a 60% decrease in new HIV infections [PDF]. The expanded needle-exchange programs also got 900 drug users into treatment.

“We may have lost this battle, but we have just begun to fight,” said Piper. “The Republicans who insisted on restoring the ban, and the Democrats who didn’t fight hard enough to oppose it, will be responsible for thousands of Americans contracting HIV/AIDS or hepatitis C. We will make sure Americans know which members of Congress care about their health and well-being and which do not.” 

AlterNet / By Kristen Gwynne

Posted at December 16, 2011, 8:06am