August 20, 2009
Forward Progress in PA for Syringe Exchange, New Road Blocks at Federal Level
In Pennsylvania, slow but steady progress has been made to eliminate the requirement for a prescription to purchase syringes. Right now, Pennsylvania is one of only a handful of states in the US that requires a prescription to buy syringes in stores. Health advocates have been working hard to allow anyone access to new syringes; these changes have been making their way through the state regulatory bodies. This is especially important for the 65 counties in PA that do not have syringe exchange programs and whose residents therefore do not have access to new, clean syringes.
In the words of the HIV Policy Collaborative, "This change will bring Pennsylvania more into line with the national trend in making sterile needles and syringes available as a means of reducing transmission of Hepatitis C and HIV, through the elimination or reduction of syringe sharing by injection drug users." At a recent meeting in Harrisburg, activists from Prevention Point Philadelphia, Prevention Point Pittsburgh, and the AIDS Law Project provided testimonies on the necessity for providing people with easy access to clean syringes. It is anticipated that within the next few weeks this change will be official.
On the federal level, debate around changing syringe exchange regulations is also happening. Currently, the federal budget bans the funding of syringe exchange programs, which means that local syringe exchanges, like Prevention Point Philadelphia, must find alternative means to fund their programs, leaving them with limited sources and funds. This year the House of Representatives removed the ban from their version of the Appropriations Bill, while the Senate kept the ban language in their version. Congressional leaders will have to resolve this difference in conference when they decide on the final, compromise version of the bill. After the House lifted the ban, Speaker Nancy Pelosi rightly responded by saying that the "…scientific support for needle exchange could not be more clear. These initiatives are an effective public health intervention that reduces the number of new HIV infections without increasing the use of illegal drugs."
While the removal of the ban is seen as a victory by local activists and service providers, they are disappointed that the House of Representatives included an amendment which stipulates that federally-funded syringe exchanges cannot operate within 1,000 feet of schools, daycares, parks, playgrounds, video arcades, pools, and youth centers. The restrictions would severely limit the locations where syringe exchange programs could operate if they receive the much-needed federal funding.
In Philadelphia, needle exchange has been a proven strategy to dramatically reduce the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C among injecting drug users. According to the City Dept. of Health, HIV rates among injecting drug users reduced from 48% in the mid 1990’s to 22% in 2006. In Philadelphia, there are no locations where syringe exchange programs could operate within the new federal restrictions.
Jose de Marco, member of ACT UP Philadelphia and director of Proyecto Sol, says "After twenty years of fighting to stop HIV infections from the lack of access to clean syringes, this is a backhanded slap to add restrictions that will stop proven and effective HIV prevention."
ACT UP Philadelphia is an activist organization led by and for people living with HIV/AIDS. Since 1988, ACT UP has been a preeminent grassroots activist group calling for funding for effective prevention, treatment and care services for people living with and at risk for HIV.