Needle Exchange Programs
Injection Drug Use and STDs
It is estimated that over one third of all HIV/AIDS infections and growing numbers of Hepatitis infections are spread through the injection of illicit drugs and the use of shared and contaminated needles. Mounting evidence clearly indicates that injection drug users (IDUs) are at particular risk for contracting STDs, and IDUs are advised to use a new needle each time they inject.
What are Needle Exchange Programs?
Also known as syringe exchange programs, needle exchange programs provide IDUs free access to sterile needles and other injection paraphernalia such as bleach and swabs in order to reduce the harm caused by the use of dirty needles - needles contaminated with someone else's infected blood.
In addition, many needle exchange programs have a side benefit in that they offer users a venue where they receive safe injection direction, safe sex education, free condoms, even referrals to treatment.
The Needle Exchange Program Controversy
Despite the comprehensive scientific evidence that syringe or needle exchange programs significantly reduce HIV and Hepatitis transmission among drug users and provide participants with a 'gateway' to other key services that help prevent sexually transmitted disease, needle exchange programs remain controversial.
Needle exchange program supporters, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), American Medical Association, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) argue that these programs significantly stem the transmission of infections and disease and do not increase the incidence of IV drug use. Hence needle exchange programs not only provide an opportunity to slow down the rampant spread of HIV/AIDS but studies have shown an increase in entrance to drug treatment programs where needle exchange programs occur.
On the opposing side, including most notably the federal government of the United States, arguments cited are that needle exchange programs encourage the illegal use of drugs and send a wrong message to children; the provision of clean needles will increase injection drug use among IDUs; distribution of drug-related paraphernalia runs against accepted morals and ethics of the U.S. culture.
Harm Reduction Philosophy
The ongoing debate regarding needle exchange programs is in essence a debate regarding the underlying philosophy of these programs, known as "harm reduction."
Harm reduction refers to interventions that aim to reduce harm associated with certain behaviors, moving in the direction of more to less harm, but without requiring the cessation or reduction in frequency of these behaviors.
Hence, in the case of needle exchange programs, harm reduction proponents aim to reduce the self-inflicted harmful effects of drug use by users via the provision of sterile needles and to thereby simultaneously reduce the harm inflicted upon society as well.