The value of clean needle exchanges is settled science. Public health bodies ranging from the American Medical Association to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to President George H.W. Bush's and President Bill Clinton's surgeon general, have endorsed providing injection drug users with the opportunity to anonymously exchange dirty needles for clean ones. Doing so decreases the spread of HIV and hepatitis, without creating new drug users.
According to the department's research, the repeal of a decade-long ban that prevented D.C. from using local funding for clean needle exchanges led to a major reduction of needle-caused HIV infections. The city is now reporting an astonishing 80 percent decrease in the number of newly diagnosed HIV cases where the reported mode of transmission was injection drug use. In 2007, the year Congress lifted the 1998 ban on D.C.'s needle exchanges, there were 149 cases of needle-caused HIV. In 2011, there were just 30. The report also says that the hepatitis infection rate fell 33 percent during that same four year period. The District has continued to make progress since 2011, increasing the number of needles taken off the street from 340,000 in 2011 to 550,000 in 2012.
Last year, the Los Angeles Times looked at what L.A. had saved by setting up clean needle exchanges early in the AIDS crisis:
In 1992 in Los Angeles, where needle exchanges were already in effect, the rate of HIV among those who injected drugs was 8.4%. In 1993, the HIV rate in Miami for that population was the highest in the country: 48%. Although Miami put into place HIV-prevention programs, there has never been a large-scale needle exchange program there. Today the rate of HIV among injection drug users in Miami is 16%. In Los Angeles, the rate stayed low, and as of 2009, the most recent data available, it was 5%.
These facts have important consequences. Extrapolating from county data, it's believed that about 34,000 Los Angeles residents are injection drug users. The California Department of Public Health calculates the lifetime costs of treating one person with HIV at $385,200. If those 34,000 Angelenos had an HIV rate of 16% rather than 5%, we'd be spending an additional $1.4 billion in treatment costs.
Trite as it sounds, clean needle exchanges don't just save lives, they also save money.
Top image: A woman shows her clean syringes at the Aids Center of Queens County needle exchange outreach center in New York, November 28, 2006. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton.