Georgia Legalizes Needle Exchanges to fight HIV

Rep. Houston Gaines and Gov. Brian Kemp – HB 217 becomes law

Georgia officially joins the states allowing legal and safe needle exchanges to help stop the spread of HIV, Hepatitis and other diseases among IV drug abusers. As was recently reported in the Athens Banner Herald, at least 320 needle exchanges currently exist across the U.S. and are now legal in 28 states and in Washington, D.C., according to HIV and AIDS research organization AmfAR. Idaho legalized them just last month.

While the number of clinics has been steadily rising since the ’90s, there has been a recent surge around the country: About 100 additional clinics opened after a 2015 outbreak in a Southern Indiana county where more than 200 people tested positive for HIV.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the estimated lifetime cost of treating one HIV patient is more than $400,000 and that people who inject drugs are five times as likely to enter substance abuse treatment if they use a needle exchange.

Injection drug users become infected and transmit viruses to others through the sharing of contaminated syringes and other injection equipment. Syringe distribution services aim to prevent this dangerous sharing.

The idea of giving clean syringes to people who inject drugs has had its critics, who see it as subtly encouraging destructive behavior. But medical experts say it’s a very effective tactic against the spread of disease.

In recent years, increasing numbers of conservative politicians have endorsed the idea of needle exchanges as a practical tactic in promoting public health. Georgia Health News has reported that the availability of syringe services has been associated with a nearly 60 percent reduction in HIV transmission in a variety of international settings, and in one study, clients of a syringe exchange program were five times as likely as non-clients to enter substance abuse treatment. And availability of syringe services has not been found to be associated with increases in injection drug use.

IV drug use and abuse continues to be a problem in Georgia with as much as a 40% increase in deaths due to overdose claimed in the past five years in the Atlanta area alone. The sharpest rise (on a percentage basis) in overdose deaths appears to be occurring outside metro areas in more suburban and rural settings. Intravenous drug abuse was not as common outside of urban centers and until recently explosive growth in the problem was more rare in rural areas.

In line with a nationwide trend, intravenous drug injection in Georgia is increasingly common among white people younger than 36, not just urban blacks. The CDC recently reported that even though roughly half of the people who use illegal IV drugs live outside urban areas, the vast majority of needle exchange programs are in cities.

The sponsor of Georgia’s new bill, Rep. Houston Gaines of Athens, said he appreciated Kemp’s support. The law will “save lives and money,” he said.

“On Tuesday before we adjourned Sine Die, Governor Brian Kempsigned House Bill 217, which will enable syringe services programs in Georgia, will help us chip away at the opioid crisis, reduce the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C, protect our first responders from needlestick injuries, and save all Georgians health care costs.” Rep. Gaines elaborated.

“HB 217 is one of the most important measures we passed this year – it’s a commonsense solution that will save lives and money. I’m grateful for Gov. Kemp’s shared commitment to improving public health and appreciate his efforts to expand access and lower the cost of health care.” said Athens State Rep. Gaines.

Congratulations to Representative Houston Gaines of Athens, Georgia on this successful enactment of forward thinking legislation.