Michigan: Needle Exchange Survives, Receives Credit for Slowing Spread of HIV

In 1997, approximately one-fourth of those with HIV/AIDS in Kent County had contracted it from injection drug use (IDU). John Logie, then mayor of Grand Rapids, proposed a needle-exchange program, which opened as Clean Works in 2000.

Now celebrating its 10th anniversary, Clean Works boasts successful results: Infections through IDU are down to 5 percent of cases.

Twenty-five years ago, Kent County Deputy Medical Director Richard Tooker proposed distributing condoms and sterile needles to combat AIDS. He was rebuked by the county health board chair as being "very much in error." Harry Dolan, then Grand Rapids police chief, opposed the program's perceived threat to neighborhoods and its potential conflict with state drug regulations. Tooker left the position a year later.

"It wasn't that I was so brave and so bold," Logie said of his later effort. "But I had a deep belief in the citizens of Grand Rapids." Residents volunteered in droves to analyze the proposal, and Dolan did not block the program's opening.

Clean Works tests for HIV and hepatitis C, and it distributes condoms and other safe sex devices, in addition to educational material on HIV and STDs. "We are talking about practical strategies that actually work," said Steve Aslum, the program's only employee.

Clean Works is funded by grants from diverse organizations such as the Steelcase Foundation, Mars Hill Bible Church, and the Michigan AIDS Coalition in addition to the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation, which is known for having conservative and traditional values.

Tami VandenBerg -- chair of the Grand Rapids Red Project, which oversees Clean Works -- said the program helps decrease the transmission of HIV from drug injectors to the general population. "Really, it works for all of us," said VandenBerg.