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Further steps needed to stem the spread of HIV/AIDS

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | DECEMBER 01, 2010 7:20 AM

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It has been labeled a "death sentence" for those it infects, a disease that festers only in gay men, drug injectors, and morally deficient minorities.

But these stigmas and others similar to them only further complicate the fight against AIDS. That's why today we recognize World AIDS Day as a time to take important steps in combating these all-too-prevalent misconceptions and disseminating information. In addition to the myriad events and discussions taking place around Iowa City today, it's also an opportune time to take a deeper look into state laws affecting the transmission and prevalence of HIV/AIDS.

One in particular, passed by state legislators in 2000, labels hypodermic needles (notoriously good carriers for HIV) drug paraphernalia. Should syringes be used for unlawful purposes, criminalizing their possession seems logical enough. However, the law's implications put that reasoning on shaky grounds:

"Criminalizing the distribution and possession of syringes is likely to create shortages of injection equipment, lead to greater reuse of syringes among intravenous-drug users, and result in large expenditures for the arrest, conviction, and incarceration of intravenous-drug users prosecuted for syringe possession," according to a 2001 report by the AIDS Coordinating Committee of the American Bar Association.

There were 1,795 documented people living with HIV/AIDS in the state (135 in Johnson County) according to the Iowa Department of Public Health. Of the 127 new cases of HIV in Iowa in 2009, one in 10 contracted the virus through secondhand needle use, according to the Iowa Department of Public Health. While this isn't an enormous number, further criminalizing an already illegal activity only creates an atmosphere conducive to the spread of unwelcome consequences.

Iowa already has unrestricted pharmacy sale of syringes, because the consumer's use can be reasonably presumed to be legal. In order to fully eradicate the transmission of HIV through intravenous drug use, however, the state needs to reject outdated needle-exchange programs.

Iowa legislators should deregulate syringe-possession laws, in the style of Oregon and New Hampshire: Put the responsibility on public-health agencies and individuals — not law enforcement — to make safe decisions and providing sterile options. We don't advocate illicit drug use, but any advancements made to reduce the spread of HIV merits discussion.

It's not just state lawmakers who have dropped the ball.

As the New York Times reported Tuesday, "While spending on global AIDS has gone up on Mr. Obama's watch, and the United States remains the world's largest contributor to such programs, independent analysts say that the rate of increase has slowed significantly." (The president's $50 million campaign pledge for countering the epidemic has yet to surface.)

In addition, while there are a number of events planned for today, volunteers can offer their time all year to organizations throughout Iowa — such as ICARE or the Mid-Eastern Council on Chemical Abuse — working to improve the quality of life for those with HIV/AIDS.

Finally, you can visit worldaidsday.org to donate to a worldwide fund, find out more about the prevalence of the disease, and what you can do to help. (Instead of forking over $6 for a cocktail downtown, you could help pay for a life-saving drug cocktail for someone else).

We hope Iowans will take great strides to enlighten themselves and become more sensitive to this worldwide epidemic. By showing compassion and creating greater understanding, we can announce to the 1 million HIV-positive Americans that they are not alone.

A cure is, hopefully, on the way. But for now, shunning or stigmatizing our fellow Iowans does little further prevent the spread of the disease.


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