For the most part, when government mulls over the possibility of a needle-exchange program for controlling the spread of AIDS, the idea is almost immediately followed by the word "study," which has the effect of stopping any forward movement dead in its tracks.
Although a steady stream of evidence now points to the conclusion that such programs do, in fact, reduce the transmission of the deadly HIV virus, a number of misperceptions still exist -- chief among them that giving addicts clean needles condones drug use, and that drug users deserve whatever happen to them as a consequence of their addiction.
Both defy common sense and human compassion. A trial program conducted in New Haven, Conn., for example, which provided sterile needles for nearly eight months to more than 700 addicts, found that even in that short time, used needles showed a far lower rate of HIV contamination than those retrieved from the streets or from "shooting galleries," and that new AIDS infections were cut by a third.
Comes now a report from the Howard County AIDS task force suggesting the county consider the possibility of implementing a needle exchange program. Howard is not the first Maryland jurisdiction to consider the option. But with only 55 reported cases of AIDS, it is an ideal location for a pilot program. That would require changing the state law against possession of drug paraphernalia. But the data clearly support doing so.
That alone, of course, is not enough. Clean needles treat only symptoms, not problems. Maryland needs not only programs that keep addicts from dying, but more treatment programs to help them get well.