By Nicolas Wilhelm, JD
Scott County, Indiana, which only has a few thousand residents, has historically had an average of five HIV cases per year. Since December 2014, however, the county has seen an outbreak, with more than 140 newly diagnosed cases. Dr. Jonathan Mermin, the director of the National Center for HIV/AIDs, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention at the Center for Disease Control (CDC) calls this “one of the worst documented outbreaks of HIV among IV users in the past two decades.” Dr. Joan Duwve, the chief medical consultant with the Indiana State Department of Health, explained that the abuse of the prescription drug Opana was one of the catalysts for the increase in HIV cases, with some residents injecting it as frequently as 10 times a day, and sharing syringes with other members of their community.
HIV is mainly spread either by sexual contact with another person with HIV, or by sharing needles or syringes with someone who has HIV. One way to reduce the spread of the disease is to implement syringe exchange programs (SEPs) that reduce the transmission of blood-borne pathogens like HIV by providing free sterile syringes and collecting used syringes from injection-drug users (IDUs).
By Scott Burris
In documenting how often public health law research does influence legislation, I’ve used syringe exchange programs as an example of evidence NOT guiding policy. Despite the consensus in health research that increasing access to sterile syringes has helped reduce HIV, state drug paraphernalia laws, and pharmacy regulations remain a barrier, as does the lack of strong and stable funding for the programs that are working. The case was just made again in an article in the Annals of Health Law. Rachel Hulkower and Leslie Wolf retell the story of the federal funding ban, going over the evidence yet again, and argue that state inaction would best be overcome with money: replacing the federal ban with a positive endorsement and real funding. (As long as we are in an optimistic mood, I would add strings – no HIV funding for states that don’t remove legal barriers to syringe access. This would balance the scales a bit for Congress’ past sin in requiring state recipients of HIV funds to provide for criminalization of exposure and transmission.)
But today I type to tell a happier story. This summer, the state of Nevada passed a statute authorizing syringe exchange and pharmacy sales. There are now 16 jurisdictions whose laws explicitly authorize syringe exchange programs (CA, CO, CT, DC, DE, HI, MA, MD, ME, NJ, NM, NV, NY, RI, VT, WA) and the number of states that require a prescription for retail purchase without exception has dwindled to ONE (Chris Christie’s New Jersey – Delaware, the other hold out, changed its law this year.) But the important thing is not the next halting steps in this slow trend, but the quality of Nevada’s legal contribution. This is going to get a little bit wonky in parts, but let me just take you on a quick tour of this marvelous statute, which drew from a model created several years ago by the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network.
People arguing that our federal government spends “too much” sound more and more like cynics by Oscar Wilde’s famous definition: knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.
I’m neither for big government nor small government. I’d like government that does important things effectively and efficiently. One very effective and efficient way to spend federal money would be on syringe exchange, probably the single most effective non-medical intervention we’ve ever devised to fight HIV. Unfortunately, the Congress that has endless time and energy to debate symbols has no time or energy to end the ban on paying for syringes with federal funds.
amfAR has put out a very nice short film on this, as part of its renewed effort to convince Congress to end the ban. It makes a convincing case, with simple stories and basic facts. Pass it on.