Politics and clean needles

Half of the nation's HIV infections can be traced to drug users who get it from dirty needles, and to those they infect - sex partners and the newborn.   And while mainlining HIV, which causes AIDS, they are also collecting a variety of other diseases.  There are few methods of disease transmission as dead-certain as pushing an infected needle into your bloodstream.
    For years, health organizations have been encouraging the federal government to finance needle-exchange programs, under which drug users would get new, clean needles free.  But last week the Clinton administration, whose own AIDS advisers support the idea, refused to provide federal financing for needle-trading.   It's simply too hot, politically.
    It should indeed be a red hot political issue - but the heat should be coming from the drive to provide the needles, not deny them.  Needles cost pennies, but in most states, including Iowa, their sale is illegal except to diabetics.   Treating AIDS, the killer that destroys the body's infection defenses, costs tens of thousands of dollars per case.  Taxpayers inevitably wind up paying most of that, under federally supported health programs.  Opponents contend that providing clean needles would encourage drug use.  That presumes that a druggie so hooked that he's mainlining would forgo shooting up if all he had was a dirty needle.
    Studies in New York, San Francisco and other cities with needle-exchange programs show that they work.  There are now 110 such programs operating in 22 states.  The administration wants to encourage such programs - but without federal financial help.
    That means denying a few federal bucks for prevention in favor of spending taxpayer money by the bucketful for treatment that doesn't work.

Des Moines Register
Tuesday, April 28, 1998, Page 10A