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The Needle (Exchange) and the Damage Done

Posted Jan 05 2012 9:08pm

Vanité symbolisant l'enfance, la maladie, la culture, le temps qui passe et la mort (Jeylina Ever, 2009)

Vanité symbolisant l'enfance, la maladie, la culture, le temps qui passe et la mort (Jeylina Ever, 2009)

As those nationwide prepared for their holiday gift exchange, American lawmakers inexplicably put an end to a different type of exchange:  a life-saving and successful public health tool called needle exchange.

House Republicans fought for, and won, a ban on federal funding for needle exchange programs in a massive spending bill passed in December that will fund the federal government until the fall of 2012.  The ban prevents the federal government from spending money funding needle exchange programs not only in the United States, but also restricts the State Department from funding syringe programs internationally.  Providing federal funding to such programs had been banned from 1988 to 2009, until finally the ban was ended after the election of Barack Obama.  Now it’s back.

These programs focus on high drug-use neighborhoods, providing free clean needles to intravenous drug users in an effort to prevent the spread of blood-borne diseases, including HIV/AIDS.  They are often accompanied by HIV counseling and testing, and typically also provide referrals to drug users for treatment.  After much debate about their effectiveness, data have shown that the programs drastically reduce infection rates and do not increase illegal drug use.  Further, the programs, which currently exist in 33 states, are widely supported by the scientific and public health community, from the CDC to the AMA to the National Academy of Sciences.  When the Washington, D.C. Department of Health looked at the efficaciousness of its needle exchange programs, 800,000 needles had been exchanged, 5000 HIV tests had been offered, and 900 people had been referred to drug treatment.  Unsurprisingly, the number of new HIV/AIDS infections dropped 60 percent in Washington, a city devastated by the HIV/AIDS epidemic.  In New York, the numbers of intravenous drug users with HIV have dropped from 50 percent in the 1980s to 16 percent today, following the implementation of a needle exchange program.

Not only do they make scientific sense, but they also make fiscal sense:  needle exchange programs reduce health spending in the long run.  According to a 2002 report by the Institute of Medicine, needle exchange programs save between $3,000 and $50,000 for each infection prevented.

But the news was not all baffling over the holidays.  In New Jersey, state lawmakers approved a bill allowing pharmacists to sell needles and syringes without a prescription, and it now awaits Governor Chris Christie’s signature.  Although previously against needle exchanges, Christie has said he has an open mind and will carefully review the bill.  And unsurprisingly, according to the New Jersey State Health Department, more than 40 percent of the state’s HIV or AIDS cases were a result of intravenous drug users’ use of contaminated needles.

When it comes to such common sense policy that is effective in reducing new infections, provides support and outreach to those struggling with addiction, is supported by data and the scientific community, and provides smart savings on health care costs in the long run, the ban on such a policy is not only confounding and irresponsible, but dangerous to us all.


Clean Needles in New Jersey, N.Y. Times Editorial, Dec. 14, 2011, available at (last accessed Jan. 3, 2012).

Emily Badger, Feds Poke Hole in Needle Exchange Funding, Miller-McCune, Dec. 20, 2011, available at (last accessed Jan. 3, 2012).

Kristen Gwynne, Risking Lives:  In 2012 Spending Deal, House GOP Slaps Ban on Federally Funded Syringe Exchange Programs, AlterNet, Dec. 16, 2011, available at,_house_gop_slaps_ban_on_federally_funded_syringe_exchange_programs/ (last accessed Jan. 3, 2012).

N.J. Lawmakers Approve Sales of Needles, Action News, Dec. 5, 2011, available at (last accessed Jan. 3, 2012).

Sarah Barr, Needle-Exchange Programs Face New Federal Funding Ban, Kaiser Health News, Dec. 21, 2011, available at (last accessed Jan. 3, 2012).

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