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Bill seeks to end the ban on syringe exchange programs
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Bill seeks to end the ban on syringe exchange programs

by Shaun Knittel - SGN Staff Writer

The ban on the use of federal funds for syringe exchange programs may be lifted. The removal of the ban is being championed by Rep. David R. Obey (D-WI) and was introduced last week in the Labor, Health and Human Services FY 2010 Appropriations bill. Obey is the chairman of the Labor, Health and Humans Appropriations committee.

"This bill deletes the prohibition on the use of funds for needle exchange programs. Scientific studies have documented that needle exchange programs, when implemented as part of a comprehensive prevention strategy, are an effective public health intervention for reducing AIDS/HIV infections and do not promote drug use," Obey said. "The judgment we make is that it is time to lift this ban and let state and local jurisdictions determine if they want to pursue this approach."

Syringe exchange programs are said to be cost-effective, prevent disease, and serve as a bridge to health care services for hard-to-reach populations, protect communities and law enforcement officials, and provide a gateway to substance abuse for treatment for injection drug users.

There are about 18,000 intravenous drug users living in King County according to the Public Health - Seattle & King County website. Without a vaccine or a cure for HIV/AIDS, prevention is the only tool we have to control the spread of the disease, the website reads. Public Health safely disposes of all contaminated syringes turned into the exchange. Public Health says this reduces the number of discarded syringes on city sidewalks and at bus stops, in yards, parks and playgrounds. The longer a syringe remains in circulation, the more opportunities there are for that syringe to pass on a blood-borne disease.

"Chairman Obey is right," said Ronald Johnson, Deputy Executive Director of AIDS Action Council, an organization that strives to end the HIV epidemic by advancing public policies that prevent new infections, provide care for people living with HIV, and support the search for a cure. "The number of individuals who have become HIV-positive through injection drug use has been drastically reduced by syringe exchange programs operating with private, state and local funding. We look forward to expanding the reach with the federal resources."

Since 1989, Congress has prevented the use of federal funds for syringe exchange programs (SEPs), using the Labor, Health and Human Services Appropriations bill and other legal provisions as a means for carrying out the prohibition.

The removal of the ban would give communities the freedom to use their federal funds for HIV prevention strategies that best fit their local needs, including syringe exchange programs.

According to Seattle & King County Public Health, HIV infection among injection drug users has been shown to increase 6% per year on average in cities that do not have needle exchange. In contrast, HIV declined 6% per year among injection drug users in cities that have exchange programs. In King County, the rate of HIV injection among injection drug users has remained low and stable for the past 16 years, with only 3% of the local injection drug users infected.

Currently, the needle exchange program is funded by disease prevention funds provided by Washington State, King County and the City of Seattle. Community-based agencies that provide needle exchange in King County may also receive private donations and grants from private foundations. King County spends $1.1 million a year on the needle exchange program. In contrast, the lifetime medical cost to treat one person who has HIV is estimated to be $385,000. Public Health says by preventing infections in just three people per year, the needle exchange program more than pays for itself. By preventing HIV infections in just 1% of injection drug users in King County, the program saves $70 million in HIV-related medical costs.

"We call on the House Appropriations Committee to keep this important change intact," Johnson said. "Local jurisdictions know how to best work in their communities."

Seattle's program began operating in 1989. Currently Public Health operates programs in six areas of King County. Community-based agencies operate two additional programs.

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