Opponents of needle-exchange programs should think about their message to drug users

Many opponents of needle-exchange programs argue that supplying drug users with clean needles sends the wrong message. But a researcher at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy advises that they should be concerned about the message they're actually sending. Despite the overwhelming evidence that needle-exchange programs (NEPs) can help reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis, many legislators refuse to support such efforts and instead write off death and illness as "just deserts" for illegal behavior, said William Martin, senior fellow in religion and public policy at the Baker Institute.

In a research paper posted this month on the Baker Institute Web site, Martin paraphrases the message these opponents are really conveying to injecting drug users (IDUs): "We know a way to dramatically cut your chances of contracting a deadly disease, then spreading it to others, including your unborn children. It would also dramatically cut the amount of money society is going to have to spend on you and those you infect. But because we believe what you are doing is illegal, immoral and sinful, we are not going to do what we know works. You are social lepers and, as upright, moral, sincerely religious people, we prefer that you and others in your social orbit die."

Martin cites a number of alarming statistics to show the size of the drug problem. The number of IDUs is estimated to be between 1 million and 1.4 million. By mid-2000, 36 percent (270,721) of AIDS cases in the United States had occurred among IDUs, their sexual partners and their children, and these three categories of people accounted for half of all new HIV infections in the nation. In fact, 57 percent of children born with AIDS in the United States are the offspring of IDUs or their sexual partners. IDUs also risk exposure to various forms of hepatitis. Between 50 and 80 percent of IDUs contract hepatitis C the most dangerous strain -- within their first year of needle use.


Contact: B.J. Almond
Rice University

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