AIDS: White House Panel Demands Needle Exchange Action
The 30-member Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS unanimously "demanded" Monday that President Clinton "allow communities to use federal money to fund needle-exchange programs meant to slow the spread of HIV among drug users." The commission also vowed to vote today on a resolution expressing no confidence in the administration's "commitment and willingness to achieve" Clinton's "stated goal" of slowing the spread of HIV among IV-drug users (Sternberg, USA Today, 3/17). In a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, the commission members wrote that "33 Americans every day catch the AIDS virus directly from dirty drug needles" (Neergaard, AP/Los Angeles Times, 3/17). The panel also wrote, "[W]e must conclude that it is a lack of political will, not scientific evidence, that is creating this failure to act." Panel Chair Scott Hitt said, "This may be the first time in history a presidential council has turned to the president and said, 'We have no confidence in you'" (USA Today, 3/17).
According to the AP/Los Angeles Times, Shalala "has said that needle exchanges can effectively fight HIV." But Shalala spokesperson Melissa Skolfield said "we have not yet concluded that needle-exchange programs do not encourage drug use." The AP/Times notes that until such proof exists, Congress is blocking communities from using "their federal AIDS prevention dollars to establish needle exchanges." The AIDS commissioners, however, argued that there "is no credible evidence that needle-exchange programs lead to increased drug abuse," prompting Skolfield to say, "The absence of proof is not the same as proof." The AP/Times reports that the National Institutes of Health backs needle exchanges as a "powerful AIDS weapon," a position shared by the "nation's leading scientific groups."
Up And Slow Running
Currently, there are more than "80 needle exchanges, paid for by private or other nonfederal money" operating in the United States. But according to AIDS activists, "expanding them will require federal funding." The AP/Times notes that "Congress last fall decided that if Shalala did back needle exchanges, communities could spend federal dollars on them only after March 31." Hitt noted that "the approach of that spending date added urgency to his panel's call for action" (3/17).