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Local activists lobby around syringe exchange
by Kate Sosin, Windy City Times

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According to HIV/AIDS advocates, the cost of a clean syringe is just 72 cents. Treating AIDS over a lifetime costs an average of $300,000.

It is simple math, said Melissa Janiszewski, policy education coordinator at the AIDS Foundation of Chicago (AFC).

Still, since December, local AIDS advocates have been up against a difficult hurdle: the reinstated federal ban on funding for syringe-exchange programs.

Janiszewski and other local advocates spent March 21 lobbying against the ban in coordination with the National Day of Action for Syringe Access.

"We really want to send the message that every life matters," said Janiszewski.

The goal, she said, is to educate legislators on the benefits of harm reduction in combating the spread of HIV.

Advocates met with U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and representatives for U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (Kirk is currently recovering from a stroke) March 21. Janiszewski also presented on the ban at the Chicago Task Force on LGBT Substance Use and Abuse later that night.

According to a March report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a study done in 2009 found that nine percent of injecting drug users tested positive for HIV. Forty-five percent of those who were positive did not know it. Of those who were HIV-negative or uncertain of their status before the test, 35 percent reported that they had shared syringes.

The report concludes that access to clean syringes, among other things, is a known and effective way of curbing the spread of HIV among injecting drug users.

"It really is the most cost-effective way to reduce transmission," Janiszewski said.

However, stigma around HIV is compounded by the stigma around substance use and abuse when it comes to needle-exchange programs. The syringe-exchange battle, which has been ongoing for decades, is hinged on the belief of some that providing clean needles encourages drug use, rather than discourages needle sharing.

AFC says that is a dangerous position, and one that ignores years of study that show needle exchange as an effective tool for reducing HIV and hepatitis transmission.

In addition to providing clean needles, syringe exchange programs link clients to services and care, providing them with treatment options and support. As a consequence, many needle exchange programs have both curbed HIV rates and substance abuse.

Service providers do not need additional federal money to run syringe exchange programs. They simply need federal funds already going to HIV service work to be unrestricted when it comes to syringe exchange.

"It's basically changing a line item in the way the law is written," said Janiszewski.

The ban has not yet meant dire straits for local AIDS advocates yet. AFC has used private funds to continue its syringe exchange program. But the situation is unsustainable, Janiszewski said.

The debate over syringe exchange programs is hardly new. The federal ban lasted more than two decades before it was overturned in 2009. In December, it was again reinstated in the 2012 budget appropriates bill.

AFC is encouraging people to call their lawmakers and ask them to lift the ban in anticipation of the 2013 budget. More information is available at

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