Needle Exchange Program Could Come to Houston

Earlier this week, the Texas House of Representatives finally passed a bill allowing for the creation of needle exchange pilot programs in the state’s urban areas.

San Antonio Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon once again filed the bill, this time to relatively easy success (similar bills did not make it out of committee in 2013, and according to the Dallas Voice, almost passed in 2009). Under the act, Bexar, Dallas, El Paso, Harris, Nueces, Travis and Webb counties and hospital districts could set up programs allowing intravenous drug users to anonymously exchange used hypodermic needles and syringes for sterile ones. The programs may also refer clients to “appropriate health and social services,” and provide education on the transmission and prevention of blood-borne viruses associated with injecting drugs, primarily HIV, hepatitis C and hepatitis B.

Federal reports dating back to at least 1998 have shown that needle exchange programs are effective in reducing HIV rates (the virus is easily transmittable via shared or second-hand syringes) without increasing illegal drug use. Studies conducted in the European Union show HIV rate declines of anywhere from 6 to 30 percent in areas with needle exchanges.

However, the programs are controversial in the United States, despite nearly 230 such programs existing in this country as of 2013. In 2005, the Washington Post busted the George W. Bush-era Office of National Drug Control Policy for misrepresenting research to make it appear unfavorable to needle exchange programs. In reality, the research cited unanimously supported such programs. Perhaps under that office’s influence, throughout the 2000s, Congress passed bans on federal funding of needle exchange programs.

Though approximately 80-85 percent of these programs are funded by state or local funds in the U.S., McClendon’s bill does not provide state funding for needle exchanges, but would allow for them to be paid for by grants and gifts. Pilot programs could also charge participants a fee per new needle, but only 150 percent of the syringe’s actual cost.

Should Harris County start a pilot program, thousands of residents could potentially benefit. According to AIDS Foundation Houston, there are more than 27,650 Harris County residents living with HIV/AIDS. Nearly a quarter of those infected are thought to have contracted the virus through nonsexual means, including intravenous drug use.

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Callie Enlow