Indiana’s Republican Governor, Mike Pence, said on Wednesday he would consider implementing a syringe service program to help combat escalating HIV infection rates in Scott County, Indiana. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently determined that HIV infection rates have soared in Scott County on account of the sharing of syringes used for the injection of heroin and other drugs. Governor Pence expressed support for syringe service programs as part of a heroin emergency plan that he is expected to announce today. Governor Pence’s announcement came just hours after Republican Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear signed legislation that would create syringe service programs in local jurisdictions that formally approve them.
“As a Hoosier I’m glad to see Gov. Pence supporting syringe exchange even if it is just in a limited manner,” said Bill Piper, director of the office of national affairs with the Drug Policy Alliance. “My uncle died fromhepatitis C, which he likely contracted from injection drug use, so I take syringe access and Gov. Pence’s actions very personally.”
“But it’s important to realize that stopping the spread of HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C and other infectious diseases in Indiana is going to take more than one temporary syringe exchange program,” Piper added. “Hopefully the governor can work with Republicans in Congress to repeal the federal syringe funding ban so Indiana can use its federal prevention dollars to make sterile syringes widely available.”
In the U.S., injection drug use has accounted for more than one-third (36 percent) of AIDS cases – more than 354,000 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Yet the U.S. bans federal funding for sterile syringe access programs, even though the CDC has found that such programslower incidence of HIV/AIDS among people who inject drugs by 80 percent. This refusal to adopt an evidence-based prevention strategy has cost the U.S. hundreds of thousands of lives and billions of dollars.
In countries where addiction is treated as a health issue, the fight against HIV/AIDS is being won. New HIV infections in countries such as Australia, Germany and Switzerland have been virtually eliminated among people who use drugs, just as mother-to-child HIV transmission has been eliminated in countries that make medicines for pregnant women access.
Last year, more than 140 local, national and international organizations released a letter calling on Congress to end the archaic federal funding ban on syringe service programs. The ban was put in place in 1988, repealed in 2009, and reinstated by Congress in 2011. The signatories include over 80 prominent organizations from 26 states, as well as Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, in addition to dozens of national and international organizations such as the American Psychological Association (APA), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and Human Rights Campaign. The letter was released to coincide with National HIV Testing Day.
As Congress begins to go through the appropriations process for its FY16 budget, it has the opportunity to lift the federal funding ban so that states may better address this urgent public health issue.