Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Needle Nexus

Published: November 17, 2009
NY Times

Of all the mysteries posed by AIDS, perhaps the deepest and most damaging is a human one: why have we failed so utterly to stop its transmission? Most people with H.I.V. in the world, including a vast majority of the 22 million who are infected in sub-Saharan Africa, caught it from a sexual partner. Despite billions of dollars spent to slow this form of transmission, only a few countries have had significant success — among them Thailand, Uganda and Zimbabwe — and their achievements have been unreplicable, poorly understood and short-lived. We know that abstinence, sexual fidelity and consistent condom use all prevent the spread of H.I.V. But we do not yet know how to persuade people to act accordingly.

Then there is another way that H.I.V. infects: by injection with a hypodermic needle previously used by an infected person. Outside Africa, a huge part of the AIDS epidemic involves people who were infected this way. In Russia, 83 percent of infections in which the origin is known come from needle sharing. In Ukraine, the figure is 64 percent; Kazakhstan, 74 percent; Malaysia, 72 percent; Vietnam, 52 percent; China, 44 percent. Shared needles are also the primary transmission route for H.I.V. in parts of Asia. In the United States, needle-sharing directly accounts for more than 25 percent of AIDS cases.

Drug injectors don’t pass infection only among themselves. Through their sex partners, H.I.V. is spread into the general population. In many countries, the H.I.V. epidemic began among drug injectors. In Russia in 2000, for example, needle-sharing was directly responsible for more than 95 percent of all cases of H.I.V. infection. So virtually all those with H.I.V. in Russia can trace their infection to a shared needle not many generations back. Though it has been scorned as special treatment for a despised population, AIDS prevention for drug users is in fact crucial to preventing a wider epidemic.

Unlike with sexual transmission, there is a proven solution here: needle-exchange programs, which provide drug injectors with clean needles, usually in return for their used ones. Needle exchange is the cornerstone of an approach known as harm reduction: making drug use less deadly. Clean needles are both tool and lure, a way to introduce drug users to counseling, H.I.V. tests, AIDS treatment and rehabilitation, including access to opioid-substitution therapies like methadone.

Needle exchange is AIDS prevention that works. While no one wants to have to put on a condom, every drug user prefers injecting with a clean needle. In 2003, an academic review of 99 cities around the world found that cities with needle exchange saw their H.I.V. rates among injecting drug users drop 19 percent a year; cities without needle exchange had an 8 percent increase per year. Contrary to popular fears, needle exchange has not led to more drug use or higher crime rates. Studies have also found that drug addicts participating in needle exchanges are more likely to enter rehabilitation programs. Using needle exchange as part of a comprehensive attack on H.I.V. is endorsed by virtually every relevant United Nations and United States-government agency.

All over the world, however, solid evidence in support of needle exchange is trumped by its risky politics. Harm reduction is thought by politicians to muddy the message that drug use is bad; to have authorities handing out needles puts an official stamp of approval on dangerous behavior. Consider the United States. In 1988, Congress passed a ban on the use of federal money for needle exchange; President Clinton said he supported needle exchange but never lifted the ban, and it remains in effect. It not only applies to programs inside the United States but also prohibits the U.S. Agency for International Developmentfrom financing needle-exchange programs in its AIDS prevention work anywhere in the world. The administration of George W. Bush made the policy more aggressive, pressuring United Nations agencies to retract their support for needle exchange and excise statements about its efficacy from their literature. (Today, U.N. agencies again recommend that needle exchange be part of H.I.V.-prevention services for drug users.) Despite Barack Obama’s campaign pledge to overturn the ban, his first budget retained it. The House of Representatives recently passed a bill that would lift the ban — but it includes a provision that would make using federal money for needle exchange virtually impossible in cities, where it is needed most.

There are some parts of the world — Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand — that do widely use harm-reduction strategies, including needle exchange. And programs have begun even in Iran, of all places, which offers needle exchange and methadone; its program of giving prisoners methadone is now the world’s largest. China is now taking AIDS seriously, beginning to institute government-sponsored harm reduction nationwide. But the overwhelming majority of drug injectors around the world still have no such access. Because government financing is so politically unpopular, in most of the 77 countries that offer needle exchange, the programs are run by nongovernmental groups. As a result, these efforts are small, isolated and often undermined by uncooperative police and health departments. The world is casting aside the single most effective AIDS prevention strategy we know.

Russia needs needle exchange more than any other country: its H.I.V. epidemic is large, one of the fastest-growing in the world, and perhaps the most dominated by injecting drug use. Yet the needle-exchange efforts that do exist are scarce, small and under siege. I traveled there recently to see what lessons they hold. At 9 p.m. on a May night, in a tough neighborhood in Moscow’s north, I joined two young men as they climbed the stairs from the Metro. Arseniy and David were in their late 20s, wearing jeans and baseball caps. They had arrived to give out clean needles and promote harm reduction — but theirs was a guerrilla effort.

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