Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar on Tuesday backed needle exchange programs as a way to reduce new HIV infections among people who inject illicit drugs.
“Syringe services programs aren’t necessarily the first thing that comes to mind when you think about a Republican Health secretary, but we’re in a battle between sickness and health, between life and death,” Azar said during a speech at the National HIV Prevention Conference in Washington.
“The public health evidence for targeted interventions here is strong, and supporting communities when they need to use these tools means fewer infections and healthier lives for our fellow Americans.”
Syringe services programs provide clean needles to people to inject drugs, in an effort to stop the spread of infections like HIV and Hepatitis C.
Republicans have historically opposed needle exchanges, arguing it can encourage drug use.
While serving as governor of Indiana and before becoming vice president, Mike Pence initially resisted authorizing a needle exchange program in an Indiana county where an ongoing HIV outbreak in 2015 was tied to needle sharing among drug users.
Pence, who at the time cited his moral beliefs, authorized a short-term needle exchange program in the county after the outbreak reached 55 infections. He eventually signed a bill allowing needle exchanges if county governments can prove that a Hepatitis C or HIV epidemic is occurring.
Studies have shown that needle exchanges can prevent the spread of HIV. Such sites often provide substance abuse treatment, HIV and hepatitis testing and other services.
Azar said Tuesday that while he would back needle exchange programs, the Trump administration remains opposed to safe injection sites – places that allow people to use illicit drugs with trained staff present to provide clean needles and to respond to overdoses.
These sites “raise entirely different legal concerns,” Azar said.
The Department of Justice had sued in February to stop a nonprofit from opening a safe injection site in Philadelphia.