COLUMN: Indiana should re-examine its needle exchange programs

In 2015, Scott County, Indiana recorded a five percent incidence rate for HIV. This represents one of the highest rates of HIV cases in a single county since the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.

The outbreak was linked to the recently widespread opiate addiction, largely prevalent in rural areas of high unemployment.

As a result, HIV and Hepatitis C were able to spread quickly through shared IVs among drug users, according to the Center for Disease Control.

It’s troublesome that in one of the most developed countries in the world the HIV virus could spread so rapidly.

According to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, however, this outbreak could have been prevented by the presence of legal needle exchange programs.

For this reason, Indiana should provide state funding for these programs in an effort to curb HIV through proven and effective 

Critics assert that these programs condone drug use, but evidence from other industrial nations suggests this isn’t the case. In the United Kingdom, for example, their needle exchange program hasn’t been matched by any increase in drug usage, according to Norman Fowler, former chairman of the House of Lords Select Committee on HIV/AIDS.

If we define addiction as a disease, like many in the medical community, including the American Medical Association, then by offering needle exchange programs to drug users we increase our chances of exposing them to treatment programs.

It’s important to acknowledge that drug use will always occur, which means we have a moral obligation to treat those afflicted, rather than condemning them for taking drugs in the first place.

In an article for The Hill, Lord Fowler writes, “Nearly half of the countries with epidemics concentrated among [injecting drug users] have no needle and syringe programs at all according to UNAIDS. The result is the further spread of HIV and an increasing death toll.”

Thus, by providing safe needles, we can limit transmission and save lives.

The question of whether drug users should be held responsible for their actions is secondary to the fact that we are responsible for their deaths if we could have prevented them.

Some efforts, however, are being made on this front.

In April of 2017, the Indiana State Legislature 
expanded funding for needle exchange programs, allowing counties to manage the programs themselves. While some counties are having tremendous success, like Monroe County, others are struggling to attract the people that need help the most.

The differences in individual programs reveal discrepancies in efficacy.

When successful, these programs can dramatically reduce the HIV transmission rates. However, the programs cannot be solely about distributing clean needles.

By combining needle exchanges with information about substance abuse, treatment options and condoms, the programs become drastically more effective, according to the Indianapolis Star.

As with any sexually transmitted disease, there’s a tendency to question the morality of the afflicted. However, these moral hang-ups shouldn’t allow for the diseases to continue spreading.

If lives can be saved through the use of needle exchange programs, our views on the morality of drug usage should have no effect.

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