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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Column: Needle exchanges poke at foes

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence is probably tired of making national headlines. Yet Indiana, amidst controversial religious freedom laws and feticide rulings, is also dealing with a different crisis: the HIV outbreak in the southeastern part of the state.

Pence was forced to declare a public health emergency, as 79 cases of HIV have been identified since December 2014. As all 79 cases were linked to intravenous drug use, Pence also authorized a 30-day program allowing drug users to trade in their used needles for clean ones.

This is a surprisingly progressive step for a conservative leader who has been very vocal about his opposition to these types of programs. However, the program is fairly limited. For one thing, it’s only authorized for the part of Indiana experiencing the HIV outbreak. For another, it’s authorized for only 30 days, a questionable amount of time for the program to take hold.

Given the data on the effectiveness of these programs, it’s truly surprising that they are not being implemented more widely. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the Surgeon General, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, the American Medical Association and the World Health Organization are just some organizations advocating for syringe exchange.

The data is not even ambiguous. Needle exchange programs slow and even prevent the spread of HIV and other needle-transmitted diseases. So, why are many public leaders — generally conservatives — still against these programs?

Perhaps it’s out of a stubbornly misplaced sense of moral purity, or perhaps it’s the idea that drug addicts deserve the consequences of their decisions.

Those consequences have great gravity, however, when they involve a case of HIV or Hepatitis C. They’re also more expensive for taxpayers to treat; the Surgeon General reported in 1998 that the cost of treating a someone infected with HIV is roughly three times the cost of funding syringe exchange programs.

It’s important to note that HIV is not the only threat to a drug addict; collapsed veins, overdose or a contaminated sample present ample danger as well. Therein lies perhaps the best argument against these programs: They are not addressing the root of the problem but are perpetuating the abuse that causes it.

As the Washington Examiner quotes Dr. Scott Teitelbaum, director of the University of Florida-run Florida Recovery Center, “Putting a needle in your arm is not recovery.”

However, this is not entirely correct, as studies have also shown that providing sterile equipment to intravenous drug users does not increase their drug usage and actually increases the likelihood that they will seek help for their addiction. Moreover, pairing these exchanges with other state-sponsored treatment programs could be a great way to provide visibility and encouragement for rehabilitation.

Arizona laws on needle exchanges, meanwhile, are somewhat ambiguous. While the possession or distribution of drug paraphernalia (including syringes) is banned, the programs can still exist with law enforcement approval. Currently, the Harm Reduction Coalition boasts three needle exchange programs in Tucson.

Tom Hill, who runs a homeless feeding program in downtown Tucson, commented on the specific need for these programs here in Arizona, saying “needle exchange programs … are desperately necessary.”

“Tucson is in the middle of a huge increase in heroin use and, consequently, a dramatic increase in the spread of blood-borne diseases like HIV, Hepatitis C and MRSA,” Hill said. “According to our latest interviews with guests at our Sunday program, nearly 20 percent are now infected with Hepatitis C. That’s devastating.”

In short, not only have needle exchange programs been proven to work, but they are also growing increasingly necessary on a national level.

Perhaps opponents of these programs need to acquaint themselves more with the data behind them. In the meantime, Pence should ask himself whether 30 days is really enough time to slow the spread of the HIV epidemic in his state.


Maddie Pickens is an economics freshman. Follow her on Twitter.

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