REUTERS

Helping people get high safely is a lot cheaper than treating them for HIV. 

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. 

Nothing drives that point home like a new report from the Department of Health in Washington, D.C., where 2.7 percent of the population has HIV

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.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. photo: a Tower Records Japan Inc. store in Tokyo, Japan.
    Life

    The Bankrupt American Brands Still Thriving in Japan

    Cultural cachet, licensing deals, and density explain why Toys ‘R’ Us, Tower Records, Barneys, and other faded U.S. retailers remain big across the Pacific.

  2. photo: a commuter looks at a small map of the London Tube in 2009
    Maps

    Help! The London Tube Map Is Out of Control.

    It’s never been easy to design a map of the city’s underground transit network. But soon, critics say, legibility concerns will demand a new look.

  3. Transportation

    How Media Coverage of Car Crashes Downplays the Role of Drivers

    Safety advocates have long complained that media outlets tend to blame pedestrians and cyclists who are hit by cars. Research suggests they’re right.

  4. Photos

    How Thousands of Headstones Ended Up Under a Philadelphia Bridge

    A surprising tale of a forgotten cemetery, a land grab, and some clever recycling.

  5. Perspective

    Why the Car-Free Streets Movement Will Continue to Grow

    In cities like New York, Paris, Rotterdam, and soon San Francisco, car-free streets are emerging amid a growing movement.

×