Tuesday, October 17, 2006

ONDCP: Misconstruing evidence on needle exchange programs.

The ONDCP (Office of National Drug Control Policy) has a blog called “Pushing Back” which recently featured an interview with Dr. David Murray, an ONDCP policy analyst and “expert” on needle exchange. The blog entry was entitled “What’s Wrong with Needle Exchange Programs?”

In the interview Dr. Murray claims that recent research about the programs’ effectiveness in lowering HIV infection has been inconclusive, and that their effect on continued drug use is unknown. These claims form the basis of the Federal Government’s refusal to fund needle-exchange programs. Dr. Murray says that endorsing needle exchange programs conflicts with the “primary burdens for any public health intervention” which are to:

“…produce the effect that they intended to produce, that they do not introduce harmful unintended consequences, and that they are demonstrably superior to other interventions that could produce better outcomes”

Ok, let’s look at these criteria:

1) produce the effect that they intend to produce –

Murray cites a recent Institute of Medicine report , and says that evidence concerning the effect of these programs on HIV infection is “limited and inconclusive”. However, the report specifically says:

“a large number of studies and review papers…show that participation in multicomponent HIV prevention programs that include NSE [needle and syringe exchange] is associated with a reduction in drug-related HIV risk behavior, including self-reported sharing of needles and syringes, unsafe injection and disposal practices, and frequency of injection.”

2) do not introduce harmful unintended consequences –

Dr. Murray also misrepresents the IOM report when discussing the effects of needle exchange on drug use itself. While Dr. Murray says that evidence on this is “inconclusive”, the IOM report says:

“the few studies that have examined the unintended consequences of programs that include NSE found no evidence that they lead to more new drug users, more frequent injection among established users, expanded networks of high-risk users, changes in crime trends, or more discarded needles in the community.”

3) are demonstrably superior to other interventions that could produce better outcomes –

Dr. Murray states: “The single most important point, however, is that there is a superior intervention that reduces the risk of disease transmission and that reduces the danger from the drugs themselves -- that intervention is drug treatment.”

Drug treatment is clearly essential, but why should it be only drug treatment, and what is ONCDP doing to make treatment more available worldwide? UNAIDS estimates that there are now 13 million injecting drug users worldwide. Where drug treatment is available at all, it is often ineffective or punitive. In Russia, with an estimated two million IDUs, “treatment” is often restricted to medically managed withdrawal. Prescription medication to reduce cravings for illegal opiates (substitution treatment) is illegal. Across Asia, many drug users are confined to centers that are more like prisons than health care facilities, and that offer little or no psychosocial or medical support.

It’s one thing for the Federal Government to decide not to fund needle exchange programs and leave it up to the states. It’s quite different for them to misconstrue the evidence of their important role in battling HIV-infection. The Institute of Medicine is not alone in its findings. In 2002 Surgeon General David Satcher issued a report to Congress that concluded:

“After reviewing all of the research to date, the senior scientists of the Department and I have unanimously agreed that there is conclusive scientific evidence that syringe exchange programs . . . are an effective public health intervention that reduces the transmission of HIV and does not encourage the use of illegal drugs.”

Additional organizations that support needle-exchange programs as effective tools for protecting the public health of communities include:

American Academy of Pediatrics
American Bar Association
American Foundation for AIDS Research
American Medical Association
American Public Health Association
Association of State and Territorial Health Officials
National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors
New York Academy of Medicine

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