25th Anniversary of HIV/AIDS Epidemic Brings Calls for Renewed Efforts to Pass Syringe Access Legislation in New Jersey
Medical and Public Health Experts and Advocates Demand Action on Sterile Syringe Access
Trenton--June 5 will mark the 25th anniversary of the emergence of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. On June 25, 1981 an article appeared in the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's bulletin, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly, about an unusual cluster of pneumonia cases in five otherwise health gay men. Thus began one of the worst pandemics in human history. Diagnosed first among gay men and injection drug users, the virus was soon found in all segments of the population and in all countries of the world, claiming millions of lives worldwide. And, despite billions of dollars spent on research, a cure for the virus remains elusive.
The best strategy to combat HIV/AIDS remains prevention. But some elected officials have been reluctant to confront HIV/AIDS prevention with the most effective tools available.
"Twenty-five years into the HIV/AIDS epidemic New Jersey stands out for its lack of action when it comes to preventing injection-related HIV/AIDS. Thousands of people have died needlessly. How many more have to die before New Jersey acts?" said Roseanne Scotti of Drug Policy Alliance New Jersey. "No doubt, there will be lots of talk in Trenton about how far we've come in the battle against HIV/AIDS. But the real issue is how far we still have to go. The issue everyone should be talking about and that the legislature should be doing something about is sterile syringe access."
New Jersey has the fifth highest number of adult HIV cases in the country, the third highest number of pediatric HIV cases, and the highest proportion of women infected with HIV. Most significantly, 45 percent of all HIV cases in New Jersey were caused by the sharing of contaminated syringes--twice the national average. About 15,000 New Jerseyans have died from injection-related HIV and another 15,000 are currently living with HIV/AIDS they contracted through a dirty needle. These deaths and infections could have been prevented if sterile syringes had been available to injection drug users.
New Jersey is one of only two states with no access whatsoever to sterile syringes to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C and other blood-borne diseases. The first syringe exchange in the country was established in Tacoma, Washington in 1988. There are now about 160 exchanges in 39 states in the United States. Only four states (New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Delaware) still require a prescription to purchase a syringe in a pharmacy.
In 1993, the first syringe access bill was introduced in the New Jersey legislature. The bill was sponsored by the late Senator Wynona Lipman (D-Essex), Senate President Richard J. Codey (D-Essex) and former Senator John Bennett (R-Mercer, Monmouth). Other bills have been introduced over the years but each failed to pass. In December 2003, a syringe access bill was scheduled for hearings in the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee but was pulled from consideration before being given a hearing. Frustrated with the legislative process, two cities, Atlantic City and Camden, passed ordinances seeking to establish syringe exchange programs under their own authority in June 2004. The county prosecutor in Atlantic City immediately sued to stop the program there and trial and appellate courts held that cities did not have the authority to establish programs absent state authorization.
Advocates then went back to the legislature and were successful in supporting two bills (one to allow municipal syringe exchange programs and one to allow limited non-prescription pharmacy sale of syringes). The bills passed the full Assembly in September 2004 but again stalled in the Senate Health Committee. Governor James McGreevey then took action signing an executive order in October 2004 to allow three cities to establish syringe exchange programs. But the executive order was challenged in court by four legislators (Thomas H. Kean, Jr. (R-Essex, Morris, Somerset, Union); Ronald L. Rice (D-Essex); Joseph Pennachio (R-Morris, Passaic) Eric Munoz (R- Essex, Morris, Somerset, Union) and expired in December 2005. A New Jersey judge then dismissed the case as moot.
Advocates continue to fight to get a sterile syringe access bill passed in the NJ legislature, and legislators continue to drag their feet--even though every major medical, scientific and professional organization to study the issue concluded that sterile syringe access reduces the rate of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C. Access to sterile syringes is supported by a coalition of New Jersey organizations that includes the Medical Society of New Jersey, the New Jersey State Nurses Association, the New Jersey Hospital Association, the New Jersey Academy of Family Physicians, and the Black Ministers Council of New Jersey.
"It has been 25 years since the first HIV cases were reported, and it has been 13 years since the first legislation to allow for sterile syringe access was introduced in New Jersey. And still the legislature fails to act while people continue to get infected and continue to die," Scotti said.