July 14, 2005

Rise in needle exchanges, study shows

By Paul Simao

ATLANTA (Reuters) - The number of syringes traded at needle
exchange sites grew in the United States despite efforts by
political conservatives to stop the programs, which they say
promote drug use under the cover of HIV prevention.

About 24.9 million syringes were exchanged at clinics,
mobile vans and other sites in 2002, compared to 22.6 million
in 2000, according to a survey published on Thursday by the
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The increase occurred despite a decline in the number of
known needle exchange sites as well as a drop in public funds
for the controversial programs, said researchers at New York's
Beth Israel Medical Center, which conducted the survey.

Many states and cities have cut needle exchange funding in
a bid to cope with budget shortfalls.

Don Des Jarlais, one of the survey's researchers, said the
findings highlighted the continuing importance of needle
exchange programs, which mushroomed following the peak of the
AIDS epidemic in the early 1990s.

HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, can be transmitted by
sharing used syringes. AIDS activists see needle exchanges as a
key weapon in the battle to halt the spread of HIV and other
infections, especially among those who inject street drugs.

But needle exchanges are anathema for many politicians,
especially in conservative states. New York, California and a
handful of other states accounted for more than two-thirds of
needle exchange programs covered in the 2002 survey.

"In New York City, we've seen a 75 to 80 percent decline in
the rate of new infections with the expansion of syringe
exchanges," said Des Jarlais, who added that the programs often
provided other important health services, such as HIV testing
and drug treatment referrals.

Needle exchange may also lead to a reduction in risky
behavior in a group considered highly vulnerable to HIV.