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hand needles

Needle exchange debated
as AIDS prevention measure

December 6, 1995
Web posted at: 11:15 a.m. EST

From Correspondent Susan Reed

OAKLAND, California (CNN) -- An issue expected to come up at Wednesday's White House conference on AIDS has polarized communities across the United States: Should drug abusers be given clean needles, at taxpayer expense? (953K QuickTime movie) Supporters say doing so saves money and lives by reducing the risk of AIDS transmission. But critics believe it may encourage drug use. "I think it sets a bad example for the rest of the country, especially for young people," said Charles Plummer, sheriff of Alameda County, California.

Needle exchange

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In favor
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On two occasions, California Gov. Pete Wilson has vetoed needle exchange measures. But some 75 cities in the United States have needle exchange programs of some kind. Half are legal. In the other cases, local government turns a blind eye.

basket Experts believe 40,000 people in the United States are infected every year with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and they think 75 percent of those new cases are drug related. Drug users sharing syringes pass HIV, which is then passed on to sex partners and unborn children.

Drug-user Hal Thomas said addicts are more likely to share potentially contaminated needles when free, clean needles are not available. "There's a lot of usage of equipment that normally wouldn't be used," he said. Where needle exchanges are commonplace, the level of HIV infection among drug users remains steady at about 15 percent, according to Fernando Aguayo-Garcia of Prevention Point in San Francisco. But "in other places like New York, where there is no needle exchange program, the rate is 50 percent," he said.

Experts estimate that if the federal government got behind needle exchanges, the rate of new HIV infections would drop by a third. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended lifting the federal ban on funding needle exchange programs. The Clinton administration has not acted on the question, arguing the federal government can't fund every part of an overall AIDS strategy.

"We ought to fund the major pieces. That's what we're doing now. And communities can build some other strategies around that with their own money," said Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala. On average, it costs almost $120,000 to treat an AIDS patient. Supporters of needle exchange argue their programs are much more cost effective.

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