Australian Drug Czar Strongly Backs Investment in Needle Exchange Programs

Press Release October 23, 2002
Media Contact

Shayna Samuels at 646-523-6961 or Tony Newman at 510-208-7711

The Australian drug czar’s office co-launched a seminal report yesterday that details the country’s dramatic return on investment from needle exchange programs over the past 10 years. Major Brian Watters, Chairman of the Australian National Council on Drugs, joined Chris Puplick, Chairman of the Australian National Council of AIDS and Hepatitis Related Diseases, in emphatically backing needle exchange as a public health strategy.

U.S. drug policy reformers applauded the move, and were caustic in their criticism of Watters’ and Puplick’s American counterparts, who they say have ignored similar, mounting evidence for many years – resulting in thousands of preventable infections and deaths.

“What a concept — imagine John Walters and Tommy Thompson publicly endorsing needle exchange just because of conclusive evidence that it works,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, referring to the U.S drug czar and U.S. secretary of health. The White House continues to ban any federal funding for needle exchange, despite many previous studies showing that it reduces the spread of HIV/AIDS, hepatitis and other infectious diseases without increasing drug abuse.

“Australia is busy saving lives, while our drug policies have so little to do with science or economics or basic common sense, it’s a scandal,” Nadelmann added.

The Return on Investment in Needle and Syringe Programs Report estimated that between 1990 and 2000 Australia’s needle exchange programs have resulted in:

An estimated 25,000 cases of HIV being avoided
An estimated 21,000 cases of hepatitis C being avoided
A projected saving of over 5,000 lives by 2010

The report concludes that an investment of almost $150 million dollars (Australian) resulted in an estimated return of somewhere between $2.4 and $7.7 billion. “It is hoped that this will further enhance the public’s awareness of the purpose and value of NSPs (needle and syringe programs) and help in overcoming the misunderstanding that these programs somehow condone or encourage the injecting of illicit drugs,” said Major Watters.

In the United States, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention researchers estimate that 57% of AIDS cases among women are linked to injection drug use or sex with partners who inject drugs. Overall, 36% of AIDS cases in the U.S. can be traced back to intravenous drug use.

The differences with Australia are striking, say experts.

“In the year 2000, there were 14.7 new AIDS cases for every 100,000 Americans compared to just 1.1 new AIDS case for every 100,000 Australians” said Alex Wodak, M.D., a leading expert on harm reduction who helped pioneer the use of needle exchange programs in Australia. “The proportion of new AIDS cases attributed directly or indirectly to injecting drug use in the United States is estimated as between one third to one half — compared to just 5 % in Australia.”

A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

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