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Free needles for drug addicts kindles debates
By Song Hongmei (chinadaily.com.cn)
Updated: 2004-04-08 16:34

A district government in Huaihua, Hunan Province, has initiated a controversial AIDS control program - providing free needles for drug addicts and asking them to trade in the used ones.

Under this program started in February, clean needles are provided to drug addicts free of charge, hoping to curb the practice of addicts' sharing of syringes so as to lower the risk of HIV/AIDS infection.

A nurse at the Zhongnan University Xiangya No 2 Hospital in Hunan Province of Central China checks a medicine to cure narcotic addiction. Many AIDS patients acquired HIV in drug abuse. [newsphoto]

Local health authorities believe this program is effective in reducing risky behavior among drug addicts and eventually in lowering the incidence of AIDS, but some people wonder it would encourage drug abuses.

In Hongjiang District, Huaihua, a city in western Hunan Province, drug addicts could not only get clean needles from the health departments for their own use, but also obtain 0.1 yuan for each clean syringe passed out to other users. And they are encouraged to trade the used syringes for new ones.

Experts from the leading group for the prevention and control of AIDS under the central government speak highly of this program. This month, the Ministry of Health named Hongjiang one of the 51 pilot districts in preventing HIV/AIDS.

Critics contend that the government might be guilty of promoting drug abuse by providing clean syringes to addicts. They argue that the practices may make addicts be bold and at ease and may entice more into a life of drug use.

The Narcotics Control Office of Public Security Department of Hunan Province said that it "neither advocates nor intervenes in the free needle exchange." Without legal support, this practice might not last long or be applied to other regions, the office said, hoping the state will enact law to regulate such practices.

Hongjiang District has provided more than 8,000 clean syringes, and drawn back and properly disposed some 10,000 dirty needles since the initiation of the program, according to China News Service.

Local health officials said the program is mainly funded by the government, and enterprise donation is another source.

Such programs have been carried out in countries like the Netherlands, Sweden, Australia, the United Kingdom and Portugal.

A study published in January 1994 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Assn. discovered that in San Francisco, as participation in the needle exchange program went up, the percentage of addicts who shared syringes went down. No studies, however, has proved that clean needle projects actually cut down on the spread of AIDS.

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