Bill Clears Way for D.C. to Fund Needle-Exchange Programs

A nine-year ban on city funding for needle-exchange programs in the District of Columbia has been lifted, a move city officials say is key to reducing the soaring rate of AIDS and HIV infections in the U.S. capital. President George W. Bush on Wednesday signed a $555 billion federal spending bill that includes a provision allowing the city to spend its own money on programs that provide clean hypodermic needles to drug users. Federal spending packages dating back to 1998 had blocked such programs.

BY admin

December 28 2007 1:00 AM ET

A nine-year ban
on city funding for needle-exchange programs in the
District of Columbia has been lifted, a move city officials
say is key to reducing the soaring rate of AIDS and
HIV infections in the U.S. capital.

President George
W. Bush on Wednesday signed a $555 billion federal
spending bill that includes a provision allowing the city to
spend its own money on programs that provide clean
hypodermic needles to drug users. Federal spending
packages dating back to 1998 had blocked such
programs.

Eleanor Holmes
Norton, the city's congressional delegate, said the ban
has contributed to Washington's AIDS rate, which is higher
than that of any other major city in the country,
according to a recent report on the epidemic.

Mayor Adrian M.
Fenty said in a statement the city plans to include
needle exchanges in a larger program to reduce HIV
infections. About $1 million will be devoted to the
exchanges.

About 128 of
every 100,000 Washington residents have AIDS, compared with
14 cases per 100,000 people nationwide, according to the
study released in November.

Rates are highest
among the city's black population, and HIV, the virus
that causes AIDS, is spreading most quickly among black
women. The city estimates that 20% of transmissions
are between intravenous drug users who share dirty
needles.

Needle-exchange
programs offer clean needles to drug users in return for
their used syringes. Advocates say the programs also cut
down on the transmission of other diseases such as
hepatitis. The programs are used by cities nationwide.

But in 1998 two
Republicans from outside Washington -- a congressman and
a senator -- inserted language in the federal spending
package that blocked the district from funding needle
exchanges.

They cited
Canadian studies that suggested the programs failed to stop
the spread of HIV and may have contributed to a rise in drug
overdoses. The authors of the studies said
congressional officials misinterpreted their report.

The ban persisted
in subsequent federal spending bills, forcing private
funding of exchange programs in the city. But Norton said
the shift in power in Congress from Republicans to
Democrats this year allowed for the elimination of the
local funding ban.

D.C. council
member Jim Graham, the former head of a city clinic that
focuses on AIDS and HIV, said a city-funded needle-exchange
program will have a significant impact on the
district's high rate of infection.

''This program
will save lives,'' he said. (Stephen Manning, AP)

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