New Jersey AIDS Rates High, Support for Sterile Needle Sales Low
Although the proportion of HIV infections in New Jersey caused by contaminated needles is twice the national average -- two-thirds of the state's 40,000 AIDS cases are the result of injection drug use -- the state Legislature has "not even discussed the issues of over-the-counter needle sales or needle exchanges in three years," the Bergen Record reports. This was largely due to former Gov. Christine Whitman's "unwavering opposition" to such programs, as she argued that the programs conveyed the sense that the government condones illegal drug use. State Sen. Joseph Vitale (D), a sponsor of past needle-exchange bills and a member of the governor's Advisory Council on AIDS, said, "Those who oppose [needle exchanges] are hung up on some sort of message. I don't know what that means when at the end of the day hundreds of people, mostly women and unborn children, are infected with HIV." Six new HIV or AIDS cases are reported every day in New Jersey, and the state ranks third nationally in the rate of children with AIDS, fourth in the rate of women and fifth in the overall number of AIDS cases, according to state health officials and statistics. However, with Whitman newly appointed in Washington as the Environmental Protection Agency Secretary and a new governor to be elected in November, needle-exchange advocates may have another chance at passing legislation. They have chosen to wait until after the election to bring up the issue to avoid "counterproductive" controversy during the campaign. Gubernatorial candidate Jim McGreevey (D) said he supports needle exchanges if they are operated in a hospital, but acting Gov. Donald DiFrancesco (R) voiced his opposition to the programs because "research has not convinced him it would prevent AIDS," although he is "open to having discussions" on the subject, spokesperson Jayne O'Connor said. Because needle-exchange programs may only operate in certain locations, many AIDS activists also support sterile-needle sales in pharmacies, where the devices can be purchased more conveniently and for less money than on the street. New York, New Hampshire, Maine, Connecticut and Rhode Island permit the sale of needles in drug stores, and Richard Melchreit of the AIDS Division of the Connecticut Department of Public Health noted that the number of AIDS cases caused directly by IV drug use has dropped from 55% to 40% in the last six years. New Jersey Deputy Health Commissioner George DiFerdinando explained that helping addicts end drug use is a "centerpiece" of the state's AIDS prevention effort, but activists say New Jersey "must do more." Glenn Backes of the Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation said, "New Jersey has done nothing to stop the HIV epidemic. It has done nothing except watch an incredible number of people get sick and die for no good reason" (Davis, Bergen Record, 3/11).This is part of the KHN Morning Briefing, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.