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D.C. to Fund Needle - Exchange Programs
  Published: December 27, 2007
WASHINGTON (AP) -- A nine-year ban on city funding for needle-exchange programs in the District of Columbia has been lifted, a move city officials say is key to reducing the soaring rate of AIDS and HIV infections in the nation's capital.
President Bush on Wednesday signed a $555 billion federal spending bill that includes a provision allowing the city to spend its own money on programs that provide clean hypodermic needles to drug users. Federal spending packages dating back to 1998 had blocked such programs.
Eleanor Holmes Norton, the city's congressional delegate, said the ban has contributed to Washington's AIDS rate, which is higher than any other major city in the country, according to a recent report on the epidemic.
Mayor Adrian M. Fenty said in a statement the city plans to include needle exchanges in a larger program to reduce AIDS and HIV infections. About $1 million will be devoted to the exchanges.
About 128 of every 100,000 Washington residents have AIDS, compared with 14 cases per 100,000 people nationwide, according to the study released in November.
Rates are highest among the city's black population, and HIV and AIDS are spreading the fastest among black women. The city estimates that 20 percent of transmissions are between intravenous drug users who share dirty needles.
Needle-exchange programs offer clean needles to drug users in return for their used syringes. Advocates say the programs also cut down on the transmission of other diseases such as hepatitis. The programs are used by cities nationwide.
But in 1998, Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan., and then-Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., inserted language in the federal spending package that blocked the district from funding needle exchanges.
Tiahrt and Ashcroft cited Canadian studies that suggested the programs failed to stop the spread of HIV and may have contributed to a rise in drug overdoses. The authors of the studies said congressional officials misinterpreted their report.
The ban persisted in subsequent federal spending bills, forcing private funding of exchange programs in the city. But Norton said the shift in power in Congress from Republicans to Democrats this year allowed for the elimination of the local funding ban.
D.C. Council member Jim Graham, the former head of a city clinic that focuses on AIDS and HIV, said a city-funded needle-exchange program will have a significant impact on the district's high rate of infection.
''This program will save lives,'' he said.
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