DC's Needle Exchange: Infections Down, Savings Up

By Nicholas Staropoli — Sep 03, 2015
Six years after Washington, D.C. health officials delivered a bleak and morbid update about the city's growing HIV-AIDS population, a new study reveals that its needle-exchange program is saving lives and millions of dollars in healthcare costs.

addiction-5-1514143In 2009, Shannon L. Hader, director of the HIV/AIDS Administration in Washington, D.C., said, "our rates are higher than West Africa," ... and "they're on par with Uganda and some parts of Kenya." At the time, incidence of HIV/AIDS was three percent of the total city's population. Also, there was evidence from a CDC-backed report that all modes of transmission of the virus were on the rise, including via intravenous drug use.

In the years since, Washington has made great strides in reducing the number of cases in the district, as D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser announced recently. And a new study out this week from George Washington University is showing that the city's needle exchange program is further driving down the rates of infection.

Newly diagnosed cases dropped 40 percent between 2009 and 2013, and deaths were nearly cut in half. Also, the percentage of the city's population infected by HIV/AIDS dropped to 2.5 percent. This data comes from a report released by city officials earlier this summer, which also reported that in 2013 only 19 new cases of HIV were attributable to intravenous drug use, down from 174 in 2007.

Source: D.C. Department of Health via The Washington Post

The year 2007 was crucial in the battle there against the HIV/AIDS epidemic, because for the first time needle exchange programs were legalized. In the late 1990's Congress outlawed the use of federal funds on needle exchange programs, but allowed states to use its own money on such programs. However, the bill blocked such programs in Washington all together. However, in December 2007, the ban was lifted, and the city implemented these programs to combat the spread of diseases, like HIV and HVC, that were spread by shared-needle use among IV-drug users.

There's a lot of data that show the effectiveness of needle exchange programs, while simultaneously not promoting drug use. And now we have more encouraging news, that supports needle exchange while also demonstrating how much money these programs save. A report published in AIDS and Behavior by researchers at the GWU's Milken Institute School of Public Health found that the city's needle exchange program prevented 120 new infections over a two-year period.

This number may appear small. However, the lifetime cost savings from these averted cases is estimated to be $44 million. Furthermore, when you consider that the city's annual; budget for the needle exchange program is $650,000, which also provides additional services such as free condoms, tests, and other health care needs, the program's value really shines through.

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