A study involving clients of the needle exchange program in Vancouver, British Columbia, "should take the wind out of the sails of people who have misinterpreted our previously published studies," according to one of the study's authors.
Previous research by Drs. Julie Bruneau and Martin Schechter has been touted by opponents of needle exchange programs -- from grassroots prohibitionist activists like the Family Research Council and Drugwatch International to politicians like drug czar Barry McCaffrey and certain members of Congress -- as evidence against needle exchange. NEP opponents point to a finding of the study, that injection drug users who use the needle exchange have higher rates of HIV than injection drug users who don't, and argue that needle exchange programs encourage needle sharing by bringing many injection drug users (IDUs) together.
The authors took to the pages of the New York Times last spring, with a letter editor charging that opponents of needle exchange programs had "misinterpreted" their results. Bruneau and Schechter explained that HIV was more prevalent among IDUs who used the program, because the program had succeeded in reaching the population that was the most at risk.
The issue came to a climax in April 1998, when District of Columbia Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus called for Barry McCaffrey's resignation, for going behind the back of his colleagues in the administration and misleading President Clinton on this and related points. The Secretary of Health and Human Services, Donna Shalala, was reportedly on the verge of lifting a Congressional ban on use of federal AIDS grant monies for needle exchange. Coincidentally, Norton made her call as needle exchange practitioners, researchers and advocates were gathered in Baltimore for the annual North American Syringe Exchange Convention.
At a conference in New York City in June 1998, Dr. Schechter described having met with Barry McCaffrey's staff prior to the April incident. Schechter said it was clear that there was an ideological agenda at work and that they weren't truly interested in what the science actually found.
According to the Ottawa Citizen, a study published in the Britain-based AIDS journal now confirms the authors' previous conclusions. Clients of Vancouver's needle exchange program are generally younger than other IDUs, spend more time living on the street and are more commonly involved in the sex trade.
Dr. Schechter told the Citizen, "What we've been able to show in this study is that people who frequently attend NEPs are higher risk. It is what you'd hope for and what you'd expect and that's why they come to NEPs and why they have higher HIV rates."
(Eleanor Holmes Norton's statement calling for Barry McCaffrey's resignation can be found online at http://www.house.gov/norton/apr248.htm. Substantial information on needle exchange can be found on the Lindesmith Center web site at http://www.lindesmith.org. The North American Syringe Exchange Network can be found online at http://www.nasen.org.