July 10, 2009
New York -- amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research, on Friday applauded the decision by a House subcommittee to remove language from an appropriations bill that for the past two decades has banned the use of federal funds for syringe exchange programs (SEPs).
Since 1988, the U.S. government has prevented local and state public health authorities from using federal funds for SEPs, which studies have shown to be effective in reducing HIV infection rates among injection drug users (IDUs). On Friday, the House Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies decided to remove the language that has blocked the funding.
"With Friday's decision, the full Congress now has the opportunity to base health policy on evidence that has told us for many years that syringe exchange programs are effective in reducing HIV incidence and do not promote drug use," said amfAR CEO Kevin Robert Frost. "With more flexibility to use federal funds, local governments and agencies will be better equipped to combat HIV transmission in their communities."
U.S. Rep. David Obey (D-WI), chairman of the subcommittee and also chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said, "Scientific studies have documented that needle exchange programs, when implemented as part of a comprehensive prevention strategy, are an effective public health intervention for reducing AIDS/HIV infections and do not promote drug use. The judgment we make is that it is time to lift this ban and let State and local jurisdictions determine if they want to pursue this approach."
Injection drug use accounts for up to 16% of the 56,000 new HIV infections in the U.S. every year -- or nearly 9,000 people. IDUs represent 20% of the more than 1 million people living with HIV/AIDS in the U.S. and the majority of the 3.2 million Americans living with hepatitis C infection.
But those alarming rates could actually have been much higher, Frost said, noting a 2008 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study that concluded that the incidence of HIV among IDUs had decreased by 80% in the United States over a 20-year period -- in part due to locally and privately funded syringe exchange programs.
Today, an estimated 185 SEPs operate in 36 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, but Frost said that many of these programs are failing to meet demand or provide other needed services for lack of resources.
"We know that SEPs work, and they're an essential tool in our arsenal," Frost said. "It's long past time to allow local and state health officials use federal resources for these programs."
During the past two decades, HIV/AIDS research and advocacy groups, including amfAR, have repeatedly called for the removal of the federal ban. SEPs have also been endorsed by the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the CDC Director Thomas Frieden, numerous law enforcement officials, and former Surgeons General C. Everett Koop and David Satcher, among many others.
"In his inaugural address, President Obama stressed that he would help 'restore science to its rightful place,'" Frost said. "With this decision today, Congress has helped him take one more step toward doing just that."