July 24, 2007
Pilot needle exchange program gets underway in San Antonio

I haven't written before about the first-ever-in-Texas needle exchange program that was authorized for San Antonio. It made it through the Lege via a back door, after a bipartisan bill was blocked in the House. I'll leave you to read Grits and Lone Star Times for the background and the sausagemaking of it, but if you want to know why this is a big deal, just read this.

Perhaps half of new HIV infections in the United States are among intravenous drug users, their sex partners and their kids. Such drug users account for 60 percent of new hepatitis C infections. Many are uninsured, and the public cost of treating them is huge.

"The amount of money that you spend with (a syringe exchange) program is so small compared with the cost of treatment for hepatitis and HIV," said [Rep. Ruth Jones] McClendon, D-San Antonio.


Studies have drawn mixed conclusions about how effectively syringe exchange programs reduce disease. While most have shown benefit, some have shown no effect, and a few have even suggested HIV infection increases after exchange programs are launched -- although some critics say those negative results have been in cities where addicts have legal access to clean needles through multiple sources such as pharmacies, skewing the data.

A 2001 overview of the studies, conducted by researchers at the University of California, Davis, found that when those cities with multiple sources were excluded, 28 of 29 remaining studies showed exchange programs reduced the spread of HIV and/or needle sharing. And another 2003 study of 99 cities worldwide found that HIV prevalence decreased 19 percent a year in cities with exchange programs and rose 8 percent a year in cities without them.

Also, a National Institutes of Health consensus panel on HIV prevention estimated that exchange programs reduce needle sharing up to 80 percent and can reduce HIV infection among drug users by almost a third.

"It's hard to prove something didn't happen and exactly why it didn't happen. But in Europe and Australia and New Zealand particularly, where they have these programs, they report unanimously that the spread of diseases go down," said William Martin, a senior fellow in religion and public policy at Rice University's Baker Institute who has studied and written about exchange programs and testified in favor of them during the past two legislative sessions.

The program saves lives, and saves money. That's the bottom line. Now that this worthwhile program has its foot in the door in San Antonio, maybe it can find its way elsewhere in the state. Soon would be nice.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on July 24, 2007 to Crime and Punishment