HIV and Hepatitis C Transmission Related to Unsterile Syringe-Sharing on the Rise; New Law Allows Syringe Sales Without Prescription <br> Only Five States, Including California and New Jersey, Still Require a Prescription for Syringe Purchases
On July 25, Illinois became the latest state to remove the prescription requirement for purchasing syringes. Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) signed the bill (SB 880) which will allow anyone age 18 and older to buy hypodermic needles without a prescription. The law will allow individuals to purchase up to 20 needles at a time from a pharmacy. Pharmacies will be required to offer the buyer educational materials on drug treatment and safe needle disposal. Supporters of the bill say that it could reduce the spread of injection related HIV and hepatitis C generally and particularly the rate of mother-to-child HIV transmission, because 96% of all HIV-positive infants are born to a parent who was infected from dirty needles (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 5/15). Representative Sara Feigenholtz, sponsor of the legislation said, "We want to encourage drug users to get into recovery, but, until they're ready, we want to make sure they're not dying of AIDS" (Chicago Tribune, 7/27).
Illinois's move to allow for syringe sales without a prescription leaves only 5 states (New Jersey, California, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Massachusetts) with prescription requirements. Because HIV, hepatitis C, and other blood-borne diseases are easily spread through the sharing of needles by injection drug users, most states have moved to allow for access to sterile syringes to stem these disease epidemics. According the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, since the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, injection drug use has directly or indirectly accounted for 36% of all AIDS cases.
Roseanne Scotti, Director of Drug Policy Alliance's New Jersey Drug Policy Project stresses the importance of sterile syringe access to prevent the spread of HIV and other blood-borne diseases. "Dozens of studies, by government agencies, and medical and scientific organizations, have found that improved access to sterile syringe reduces the spread of HIV, hepatitis C, and other blood-borne diseases -- without increasing drug use."
The number of states requiring prescriptions for the purchase of syringes may be reduced even further in the near future. Two other states, California and New Jersey have legislation pending that would remove the prescription requirement. Last year California's Senate and Assembly passed a bill with bipartisan support removing the prescription requirement, but the bill was vetoed by Governor Gray Davis. A similar bill (SB 774), also authored by Senator John Vasconcellos passed the California Senate in May and will likely be voted on in the Assembly shortly. Advocates in California hope that this year Governor Davis will sign the bill if it gets to his desk.
In New Jersey legislation (Assembly Bill 3645), sponsored by Mercer County Democrat Reed Gusciora and eleven Assembly co-sponsors, which removes the prescription requirement for the purchase of syringes in pharmacies, was introduced in the Assembly in May. New Jersey, which has the 5th highest adult HIV rate, the 3rd highest pediatric HIV rate, and the highest percentage of women infected with HIV in the nation, also has perhaps the strictest syringe access laws. Supporters say this has created a public health catastrophe in the state.
"While nationally 25% of HIV infections are related to injection drug use, in New Jersey 50% of infections are related to injection drug use," said Scotti. "Unless we deal with injection related HIV we will never be able to make real progress in the fight against AIDS in New Jersey."
In 1996, then Governor Christie Whitman's own AIDS Advisory Commission recommended the removal of the prescription requirement for syringes, but the Governor, in a much criticized move, rejected the Commissions advice and took no action on the recommendation.