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San Antonio Conference Debates Benefits of Needle-Exchange Programs for Preventing HIV Among Injection Drug Users

May 17, 2004

Health experts, community leaders, heads of not-for-profit organizations and representatives from law enforcement gathered in San Antonio on Wednesday to discuss the benefits of needle-exchange programs for preventing the spread of HIV and hepatitis C among injection drug users, the San Antonio Express-News reports. Organizers said that the conference, titled "It's Time: Harm Reduction for San Antonio," could be the "first step" toward initiating a needle-exchange program in the city, according to the Express-News. Allan Clear, director of the Harm Reduction Coalition in New York City, at the conference said that some HIV outbreaks could have been prevented with "effective, large-scale" needle-exchange programs, according to the Express-News. "This is an epidemic that never needed to happen," Clear said, adding, "It's actually man-made. We knew how to prevent it." According to CDC, studies show that needle-exchange programs can reduce new HIV infections among injection drug users by 30%. According to Dr. Fernando Guerra, director of the city's Metropolitan Health District, San Antonio in 2003 recorded more than 4,000 hepatitis C cases, 60% of which were among injection drug users, the Express-News reports.

Texas Law
In addition to discussing the health benefits of a needle-exchange program, conference participants talked about the legal obstacles to establishing a program in San Antonio, the Express-News reports. According to Debra Seamans, assistant director of the Texas Department of Health's Bureau of HIV and STD Prevention, "The law in Texas clearly says it's illegal." The delivery of drug paraphernalia, including syringes, for illegal drug use is a Class A misdemeanor in Texas, according to the Express-News. However, Seamans said that there is "a lot of public health information out there showing the benefits" of needle exchanges. Jill Rips, associate director of the San Antonio AIDS Foundation, said that needle-exchange programs have been established with private funds in Austin, Texas, and Dallas and that law enforcement in those cities have "look[ed] the other way," according to the Express-News. Bexar County Sheriff Ralph Lopez, who spoke at the conference, said he favors community-based needle exchanges. He added that the sheriff's department has "discretion" to allow "credentialed organizations" to run such programs, the Express-News reports (Foy, San Antonio Express-News, 5/13).

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