Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Legislative briefing draws experts from across the U.S.

Today's briefing on syringe access occurred on the eve of the 8th National Harm Reduction Conference, the nation's leading gathering of harm reduction enthusiasts and experts from around the globe. A panel of six speakers convened in the Texas Capitol Legislative Conference Center to reinforce the importance of syringe access as a successful disease prevention tool that Texas has gone far too long without and paid too high a price.

Don Des Jarlais (pictured above), Director of Research at Beth Israel Medical Center, spoke about the safety and efficacy of syringe exchange. He is a leading researcher on AIDS and injection drug use. He reminded listeners that syringe exchange programs offer a low cost and cost effective way to reduce the burden on the public system of treating the expensive twin epidemics of HIV and hepatitis C.

Allan Clear, Executive Director of the Harm Reduction Coalition and a nationally and internationally renowned harm reduction expert, spoke about the decision of the U.S. Congress to end a twenty year ban on the use of federal funds for syringe exchange in December 2009. He noted that cities such as New York, that offered syringe exchange early on, were able to avert large-scale HIV epidemics in drug users. He reminded us that while there may have been reason to be skeptical about syringe exchange twenty years ago when no one knew or understood what these programs were, we now know that syringe exchange is the second most scientifically proven effective HIV prevention method, next to only prevention of mother-to-child transmission.

Ruthie Burich, Prevention Specialist at AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin (ARCW), spoke about her experience providing syringe exchange services and HIV testing and counseling to injection drug users in a state that has successfully reduced rates of HIV in this high risk population. ARCW operates Lifepoint, one of the nation's leading statewide needle exchange programs. Lifepoint serves clients and families in eleven cities throughout the state. Ruthie explained that programs not only offer access to sterile syringes, but also often provide primary health care services and referral to drug treatment.

Heather Edney, a marketing consultant from Southern California shared how syringe exchange programs saved her life after she became addicted to drugs at the age of fifteen and throughout her high-achieving teenage and college years. She explained how access to sterile syringes kept her from getting HIV, hepatitis C and other deadly blood borne infections until she was ready and able to successfully seek drug abuse treatment services. She pointed out that one syringe may cost as little as 0.08 cents, which seems reasonable compared to the price of doing nothing.
Jill Rips (left), Deputy Executive Director at San Antonio AIDS Foundation, has supported establishing syringe exchange programs in San Antonio where rates of hepatitis C and AIDS in injection drug using populations remain alarmingly high. Clients in Texas who continue to struggle with addiction and disease are left with very few options and resources, despite a willingness to protect themselves and loved ones from further transmission of HIV and other infections.

Tracey Hayes, Field Organizer at the ACLU of Texas and Project Director of The Access Project for over six years, spoke about the success of syringe exchange legislation in the 81st legislative session. She reminded the audience that the issue continues to bring together parties on both sides of the aisle and maintains a strong bipartisan coalition of supporters who support these sensible programs that save lives and taxpayer dollars.

A very special thank you to our panelists and guests today! Here's to hoping the legislature is poised and ready in 2011 to pass legislation that will immediately begin saving the public system from continuing to pay millions of dollars in expensive emergency room visits and chronic HIV and hepatitis C treatment costs, which is where drug users end up when we choose to do nothing.

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