US Health Chief Announces Support For Needle Exchange Programs

By Lindsey Weedston 04/01/19

The Health Secretary's reversal on needle exchange programs may be related to a new 2030 deadline related to HIV.

US Health Chief meeting with Trump

Speaking at the National HIV Prevention Conference on Tuesday, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar expressed support for needle exchange programs as a way to stop the spread of HIV.

Republicans like Azar have largely resisted these programs, believing that they will encourage drug use—but evidence to the contrary appears to have convinced the HHS Secretary otherwise.

“Syringe services programs aren’t necessarily the first thing that comes to mind when you think about a Republican health secretary, but we’re in a battle between sickness and health, between life and death,” Azar said during his speech according to The Hill. “The public health evidence for targeted interventions here is strong, and supporting communities when they need to use these tools means fewer infections and healthier lives for our fellow Americans.”

Needle exchange programs have existed for years, but are as important as ever with the national opioid crisis. These programs have reduced the spread of dangerous viruses such as HIV and hepatitis C through intravenous drug use. The first such program in the U.S. was established in 1988 in Tacoma, Washington, and was rewarded with a 60% reduction in new hepatitis B and C cases.

Studies over the decades have also consistently found that these services do not increase the number of intravenous drug users. At the same time, needle exchange programs cost significantly less than treating new cases of HIV and hepatitis.

However, the larger Trump administration still opposes these programs as well as safe injection sites where individuals can use drugs without fear of arrest, and in the presence of medical professionals who both provide clean equipment and are ready to save lives in case of an overdose.

In February, the Department of Justice sued Safehouse, a non-profit organization based in Philadelphia, to prevent them from opening the country’s first safe injection site.

Azar’s reversal on needle exchange programs may be related to a new 2030 deadline related to HIV. Earlier this month, the Trump administration revealed its 2020 budget proposal, which included a request for $291 million for an ambitious plan to end the “HIV epidemic” in a decade.

“For the first time in modern history, America has the ability to end the epidemic, with the availability of biomedical interventions such as antiretroviral therapy and pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP),” the budget plan reads.

With Azar’s statements at the National HIV Prevention Conference, it appears that needle exchange programs could become a part of these efforts. Most of the $291 million requested will be given to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which supports and helps to fund these services.

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Lindsey Weedston is a Seattle area writer focused on mental health and addiction, politics, human rights, and various social issues. Her work has appeared in The Establishment, Ravishly, ThinkProgress, Little Things, Yes! Magazine, and others. You can find her daily writings at Twitter: