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New Era for Syringe Exchange Programs! No More Abstinence-Only Education!

By Bonnie Goldman

July 29, 2009

A new era has dawned in HIV/AIDS. For years, public health experts, health care providers and researchers have been pleading with the U.S. government to remove the federal ban on funding for needle exchange programs and to accelerate the growth of these programs across the U.S.

They wanted this done for one simple reason: Syringe exchange programs can save lives. They can be an important component in reducing the spread of blood-borne infectious diseases -- including HIV and hepatitis -- among injection drug users.

According to many studies, these programs do not encourage drug use, contrary to what many conservatives say. Instead, they encourage the humanitarian treatment of people who have a substance abuse problem. Syringe exchange programs not only help provide clean needles, they provide access to health care for a population that doesn't ordinarily access health services.

It's taken 21 years to see any real movement on this issue from our federal government. But with the new Obama administration and a Congress that has greater understanding of what syringe exchange truly means, we are finally nearing the long-awaited moment when the federal funding ban on needle exchange is finally gone. On July 24, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a spending bill for the next fiscal year that would wipe out the ban. The Senate still has to pass its own version of the bill before the president can sign it, but at this point signs are very promising.

And that's not the only exciting policy shift in the bill with a potentially huge impact on HIV prevention in the U.S. The spending bill also allocates no funding whatsoever for our country's failed abstinence-only education programs in schools -- programs that, according to CQ Today, have cost an unbelievable "roughly $110 million per year in discretionary spending and $50 million per year in mandatory spending under national welfare laws."

Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who chairs the Senate subcommittee that is debating the spending bill, "confirmed that the bill will not contain funding for abstinence-only education programs when the full committee marks it up on Thursday [July 30]," CQ Today reports. "Instead, the draft will contain funding for more comprehensive sex education, which can include teaching abstinence."

While all of this is going on, we also await the seemingly imminent demise of the ban on HIV-positive people traveling to the U.S. It apparently faces just a few bureaucratic hurdles before it becomes law. The public comment period is currently ongoing; you can offer your opinion online until Aug. 15, 2009.

For more on all these changes, take a look at this transcript of a press conference at the recent International AIDS Society conference (IAS 2009) where U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases head Anthony Fauci, M.D., discussed some of the policy changes coming down the pike.

After eight long years of tragic stagnancy in HIV/AIDS, it's amazing and exciting how quickly things are changing for the better. Yes, there is much yet to do and some of our biggest issues remain unaddressed (such as a national plan to fight HIV/AIDS!?!), but for the first time in a very long time, there is reason to have hope when we think about our leaders in Washington doing something about HIV/AIDS in the U.S.

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