"While programs to control the spread of HIV by providing clean needles to drug users remain controversial in California and around the country, this study clearly shows that syringe-exchange programs save lives -- and save society millions of dollars in health care costs required to treat HIV patients," said lead author David R. Gibson, associate professor of infectious and immunologic diseases at UC Davis and a senior scientist at UC San Francisco's Center for AIDS Prevention Studies.
Injection drug use is linked to about one-third of all HIV/AIDS cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Drug users contract these diseases by sharing contaminated syringes. To curb this high-risk behavior, syringe exchanges operate in a variety of settings, including storefronts, vans, sidewalk tables, health clinics, and places where drug users gather.
The first organized syringe-exchange programs in the United States were established in the late 1980s, despite strong opposition from some communities on moral grounds -- opposition that continues today.
"While this study should open the way to a more fact-based discussion of these controversial programs, a small, vocal minority simply refuses to look at the scientific evidence -- they are essentially 'data-proof,'" Gibson said.
The UC Davis study offers the most detailed examination to date of the complex factors of the role of syringe exchanges in reducing HIV risk behavior, Gibson said. The study addressed several key challenges that have tended to distort the findings of previous syringe-exchange studies, he added.