WASHINGTON -- Scientists and drug abuse activists demanded yesterday that the federal government lift its ban on funding needle exchange programs for addicts. They argued that the programs have been effective in preventing the spread of AIDS, and that most Americans now approve of them as a means to curb the disease.
At a forum on Capitol Hill, co-sponsored by the Drug Policy Foundation and the Federation of American Scientists, the Clinton administration was assailed for not acting on the positive evidence about needle exchange gathered by an extensive, federally-funded study at the University of California.
"This is a most egregious example of an inadequate response to AIDS," said Dr. Peter Lurie, the principal researcher in the national study of needle exchange programs, who called the administration's silence about the findings "fundamentally repressive."
Avis LaVelle, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, disputed Dr. Lurie's accusation. She agreed that "the study does offer conclusive evidence of the effectiveness of needle exchange for curbing the transmission of HIV virus," but she said it fails to prove that these programs also curb drug abuse.
The researchers, who examined needle exchange programs around the country, found that there was no evidence that providing clean needles increased or encouraged drug abuse. According to a 1988 federal law, however, there must be evidence that needle exchange programs actually reduce the level of drug abuse before the surgeon general can request that the funding ban be lifted.
About one-third of all new AIDS cases involve intravenous drug abusers, their sexual partners and their children, according to the eight-month study, which was completed in April, 1993.
The study confirmed that not only does needle exchange reduce the incidence of AIDS, it also curbs the transmission of other diseases. Hepatitis infections decreased by three- to four-fold among addicts in the programs, it revealed.
David C. Condliffe, the executive director of the Drug Policy Foundation in New York, who moderated the forum, noted that needle exchange programs also save money.
"One addict [with AIDS] can infect 10 others within six months," he said. The cost to the taxpayer for each one, "from infection to death, averages about $57,000." he said.
By comparison, a three-year pilot needle exchange program now under way in Baltimore operates at a cost of $165,000 a year. It is currently serving 2,000 addicts and is expected to expand to 3,500.
Besides demanding federal funding for needle exchange programs, many of those at yesterday's forum want to see state laws repealed that make it a crime to possess drug paraphernalia, such as syringes. As a consequence, many state needle exchange programs are technically in violation of the law.