Up to 10,000 Americans Unnecesssarily Infected with HIV During Clinton Presidency

April 20, 1998

Up to 10,000 Americans Unnecesssarily Infected with HIV During Clinton Presidency

Administration Says Needle Exchange Programs Work, But Won?t Fund Them

Today the federal government announced that it will not lift the ban on the use of federal funds for needle exchange programs, which take used, potentially HIV-infected syringes from drug users in exchange for sterile ones in an effort to prevent the spread of HIV among drug users, their sex partners and their children. Bans on the use of federal funds for this purpose date back to 1988.

“The United States is consigning itself to the Stone Age of HIV prevention instead of joining the rest of the industrialized world, which for years has provided these essential services,” said Dr. Peter Lurie, Research Associate with Public Citizen?s Health Research Group and principal author of the first national survey of needle exchange programs, conducted for the Centers for Disease Control in 1992-3.

Dr. Lurie?s is one of seven federally funded reports on needle exchange programs, dating back to 1991, that concluded that the programs reduce the spread of HIV infection and do not increase drug use rates. These two criteria were those that the law stipulated had to be met for the ban on federal funding to be lifted. Today, after years of holding the issue hostage to political considerations, Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala finally certified that both criteria had been fulfilled. But she stopped short of invoking her authority to lift the ban on federal funding if the two criteria were met.

“This politically motivated decision is in effect a death sentence for thousands of injection drug users, their sex partners and their children,” said Dr. Lurie. “Obviously, the political health of the administration has taken precedence over the public health.”

In an article published in the British medical journal The Lancet in 1997, Dr. Lurie and a colleague, Dr. Ernest Drucker of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, estimated the number of HIV infections that could have been prevented by a national program of needle exchange programs. Based on that paper, “We estimate that during the Clinton presidency, up to 10,000 drug users, their sex partners and their children have unnecessarily contracted this fatal infection,” said Dr. Lurie, “and almost 7,000 more will do so before his Presidency is over. So much for a President who endorsed needle exchange in his 1992 presidential campaign.”

Needle exchange programs are a part of a comprehensive approach to HIV prevention that should also include the expansion of drug treatment availability, the sale of syringes in pharmacies and the revoking or modification of any laws or regulations that hinder pharmacy sale, said Dr. Lurie.

“Now that the government has finally certified that the programs are safe and effective, it is time for states and local communities to fill the gap left by the federal government?s unconscionable inaction,” he said.