Congress lifts federal funding ban for needle exchanges

One promise made by United States President Barack Obama during his election campaign is coming to fruition after the U.S. Congress voted to lift federal funding restrictions on needle exchange programs last week. Obama is expected to sign the legislation just after the New Year.
AIDS activists are cheering the move, saying it legitimizes programs that studies have shown help to reduce greatly HIV infections.
“It humanizes the issue rather than criminalizing the behavior,” said South Florida AIDS activist Michael Rajner. “There are a lot of people who take great strides to making sure that people are getting clean needles.”
For more than two decades, needle exchange programs in 33 states have provided clean needles to intravenous drug users as a way to reduce the transmission of
HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C. A backlash from opponents forced officials during President Bill Clinton’s administration to ban federal funding and programs have relied solely on state and local funding.
In South Florida, needle exchange programs operate on the down low, away from the watchful eye of law enforcement.
For the past three years, George Gibson has operated
Flashlight of Hope, Inc. a needle exchange program in Miami. Gibson goes out once or twice a week at night to places where intravenous drug users hang out and gives out clean needles to people as well as free condoms and offers them counseling and information about how to help get them clean.
“Sometimes you can gain their trust and they will take you back to their home and you can start going and meeting them there,” Gibson said.
Gibson said all of the funding for ‘Flashlights’ comes from the
North American Syringe Exchange Network (NASEN).
Represenatives from NASEN did not return phone calls before publication but according to their website, they offer grants of up to $15,000 per year for organizations looking to start needle exchange programs in their city. A startup kit of 14,000 syringes and other supplies to be able to take used needles costs about $1,200 through NASEN’s bulk buying procedures.
According to the
Miami-Dade County HIV Health Department, 5,071 people who are HIV positive in Dade County contracted the disease through intravenous drug use. Another 1,251 people contracted HIV through sharing needles or unprotected sex with a male in Dade County. Those two categories account for roughly 20 percent of the 31,755 people who currently live with HIV in Dade County.
According to the
Broward Health Department, 22 out of the 729 people who became infected with HIV in Broward County from January-July 2009, contracted the disease from shared needle use.
Gibson became involved in the needle exchange programs after going to the gay pride festival in Key West and speaking with some of the
HIV testing counselors. Gibson used to go out with a group, but now the work is a lonely endeavor.
“I know I need to keep going out there because these people need my help,” Gibson said.
Broward Sheriff Al Lamberti wrote a letter to congress expressing his desire to see successful needle exchange programs set up in the county.
Lamberti’s letter stated: “The dramatically high rate of new HIV infections in South Florida is directly related to widespread substance abuse. These co-occurring epidemics create a synergy that heightens risk behaviors and results in tremendous costs to both the affected individuals and the community. While substance abuse prevention and treatment remain vital, it is also essential that the health consequences of injection drug use be mitigated by needle exchange programs.”
Lamberti also expressed his concern for tax payers having to foot the bill for caring for inmates who are HIV positive.
Lamberti wrote: “Until we can get drug and substance abuse under control and find a cure for the spread of the AIDS virus, containment of the disease should be one of our strategies. As we speak today, there are 200 inmates in the Broward County jail who are HIV positive. The cost of providing AIDS medications to these inmates is approximately $1,000 per month per inmate. This equates to a $200,000 monthly expenditure for AIDS medications alone for our jail system. This represents an extreme tax burden to the residents of Broward County. Considering the economic stress that our citizens face today, any efforts to reduce the HIV infection population should be pursued.”
Once the bill is signed, the US Health and Human Services department will be able to provide grants for needle exchange programs throughout the country.


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