Become a digitalPLUS subscriber. 99¢ for 4 weeks.
NewsOpinionEditorial

Stopping HIV in Baltimore [Editorial]

Laws and LegislationHIV - AIDSDiseases and IllnessesMaryland General Assembly

Nearly three decades into the AIDS epidemic, medical professionals now have a much better understanding of the disease and how to treat it. But prevention is still the first line of defense against this devastating killer, which has already taken the lives of some 35 million people around the world, including 620,000 Americans. That is why we applaud the Maryland House of Delegates' passage last week of an expanded needle-exchange program in Baltimore City, which has been shown to drastically reduce new HIV infections among intravenous drug users. The state Senate had earlier approved a slightly different version of the same legislation, and we urge the two chambers to bring this matter to final approval before the legislature adjourns next month.

With the development of powerful new anti-retroviral drug therapies, AIDS has become a chronic but manageable illness rather than the death sentence it was when the HIV virus was first discovered. But the fight against this devastating killer is far from over. In Baltimore City, which has the fifth highest AIDS rate in the country — twice the national average — health officials are still struggling to reduce the dozens of new infections each year that allow the disease to spread.

One of the city's most effective tools to cut the HIV transmission rate has been the health department's needle-exchange program, which allows IV drug abusers to turn used needles and receive new sterile syringes in return. The program, which operates a fleet of vans to deliver clean syringes to the communities where addicts live, also offers drug treatment and counseling services for people who want to kick the habit and educates them about the risk of infection associated with using dirty needles. The outreach effort has been remarkably successful in persuading IV drug abusers, who often have little contact with the public health care system, to adopt harm-reduction strategies such as avoiding sharing needles and using a clean syringe every time.

As a direct result of program, the number of cases in Baltimore in which injected drug use was identified as the cause of infection dropped from 60 percent of newly diagnosed HIV cases in 1994 to fewer than 30 percent little more than a decade later. Similar programs around the country have shown similar drops in HIV infections transmitted through infected syringes, and by now there is a large body of evidence compiled by public health researchers indicating that such interventions are one of the most effective ways of curtailing the spread of AIDS among the traditionally hard to reach population of IV drug users.

The legislation passed by the Maryland House last week would expand the city's current needle exchange program by replacing the one-to-one limit on how many clean syringes an addict may receive for each dirty needle turned in with a needs-based model that would allow health outreach workers to supply up to 10 clean needles for every dirty syringe presented for disposal. Health officials say the change is needed in order to maximize the probability that addicts will always have a clean needle to use for injecting drugs even if a needle dispensary van isn't available when they need it due to weather or other problems, or if for some reason they are unable to travel to where the van is parked. Since it often only takes one injection with a contaminated needle to infect a user, health officials want to ensure that addicts always have access to a sterile syringe.

The Senate bill passed earlier does not specify the number of needles that can be obtained at one time. Either version of the bill would be an advance, and the particular number of needles in question should not be an insurmountable stumbling block as the two chambers negotiate. We know from our own experience and that of other states with needle exchange programs that easy access to clean syringes can help stop the spread of HIV. This measure would simply make Maryland's program more effective.

To respond to this editorial, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
Related Content
Laws and LegislationHIV - AIDSDiseases and IllnessesMaryland General Assembly
  • House of Delegates passes city needle exchange expansion
    House of Delegates passes city needle exchange expansion

    The House voted Friday to expand Baltimore City's needle exchange program, but not before members debated whether giving addicts access to more clean syringes could aggravate growing heroin use in the state.

  • The BMA turns 100
    The BMA turns 100

    The Baltimore Museum of Art owes its existence to the work of civic-minded citizens a century ago who believed that a great city was incomplete without a great art museum. And from the beginning their vision of the purpose of a great museum was to provide a place for people of every station...

  • The bogus 'rain tax' repeal
    The bogus 'rain tax' repeal

    Despite facing a bigger-than-expected budget shortfall, and although he promised a policy blackout until he takes office, Governor-elect Larry Hogan last week publicly reiterated his support for repealing Maryland's "rain tax" while meeting with fellow Republican governors in Florida. He told...

  • Obamacare: Beyond the website
    Obamacare: Beyond the website

    While it's too early to declare the new Maryland health insurance exchange website a complete success, its largely smooth launch this week offers the prospect that this open enrollment period will be focused less on the technology and more on ensuring Marylanders are getting access to high...

  • The growing wealth and clout of the richest .01 percent
    The growing wealth and clout of the richest .01 percent

    Political spending of the nations wealthiest has been growing faster than their spending on anything else

  • Maryland delegation should petition for release of Cuban Five
    Maryland delegation should petition for release of Cuban Five

    In 1999, I accompanied the Baltimore Orioles on their historic trip to Havana, Cuba. This marked the first time since 1959 that a Major League Baseball team played in Cuba. Many of us hoped that a baseball game involving teams from the United States and Cuba might be a precursor to normalized...

Comments
Loading