August 20, 1997

Conservatives, AIDS activists debate needle programs

By Maggie Fox, Health Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Reuter) - Groups for and against needle exchange programs that aim to stem the spread of AIDS held dueling news conferences Wednesday, but united to demand that the government act quickly to make its policy clear.

While conservative policy groups maintained that needle exchange programs could cause more harm than good by encouraging drug use, AIDS activists and doctors working with such programs said they had already saved lives and urged the U.S. government to end a ban on using federal funds for needle exchanges.

But for Robert Maginnis of the Family Research Council, a conservative family policy organization that lobbies on issues such as sex education, the fear was that the government might act.

The council and other conservative groups pointed to a Columbia University report last week that showed heroin use by American teen-agers doubled between 1991 and 1996.

Studies at the institute and others showed the rate of new HIV infections fell by two-thirds in areas where needle exhange programs were active. ``What we also found ... is that drug use decreases among syringe exchange users,'' she said.

The programs provide clean needles so that drug users do not share them or throw them out for children or other users to find.

HIV, the virus that causes AIDS and which is spread through bodily fluids, is easily passed on via dirty needles, as are other viruses such as hepatitis.

But the conservative groups questioned the science that supported needle exchange programs.

The group also published a survey it commissioned of 1,000 voters that found 59 percent of those questioned thought the programs were irresponsible.

But several experts said needle exchange programs were cheap, effective and took a preventative approach.

Mohammad Akhter, executive director of the American Public Health Association, said one-third of all AIDS infections in the United States stemmed from drug use.

Last week financier and philantropist George Soros said he would donate $1 million for distribution of sterile syringes.

U.S. mayors, the American Bar Association, the American Medical Association and other groups have spoken out strongly in favor of federal funding for needle exchange.