New Jersey’s caseload of HIV/AIDS patients ranks fifth in the nation. And while we think of ourselves as a progressive state, we are way behind the curve on policy. In 2007, New Jersey became the last state in the nation to give drug addicts access to clean needles when it established five needle-exchange pilot programs. We remain one of only two states, with Delaware, that doesn’t allow over-the-counter needle sales in drug stores. The Senate health committee is set to vote next week on a bill allowing such sales.
Roseanne Scotti, New Jersey director of the Drug Policy Alliance, organized the political drive to broaden needle access. She spoke recently with Star-Ledger editorial writer Linda Ocasio. An edited transcript appears below.
Q. What is different about HIV/AIDS in New Jersey now?
A. We have gotten to the point where we have the tools to approach HIV, and we’re willing to use them, such as needle exchange programs. We’d like to see these expanded and mainstreamed. And there is growing support for access to over-the-counter syringes through pharmacies. Any public health organization in contact with injection drug users should be offering them access to clean needles.
Q. Which population in the state is most at risk?
A. Injection drug users are the group with the single largest number of HIV infections. Historically, that has been the highest single source for HIV infections in New Jersey. HIV is also a serious risk for gay men and women who thought they were in a monogamous relationship. People of color make up 76 percent of all HIV cases. And 77 percent of people living with HIV are black or Latino, but they make up 13 to 14 percent of the population in New Jersey. That’s appalling.
Q. What are some of the challenges of reaching that population?
A. There’s a big discussion nationally now that some people see HIV as a chronic condition (because) they live longer. As a result, a lot of younger people don’t have the same awareness and fear that people had 10 and 20 years ago. Some talk about HIV fatigue. It’s wonderful we have the drugs, but they are expensive, and you still have lots of serious health issues that go along with the disease. Also, we’ve seen funding for HIV drop, partly to do with the economy. But the fact is that there is not the same sense of urgency as in the past.
Q. How is the current political climate in the state affecting the work you do?
A. Certainly, the economic climate is making it a challenge, especially when you realize how much work remains to be done and how cost-effective needle exchange programs are. By the same token, lots of programs are being cut, there’s an economically disproportionate impact in terms of HIV programs. And there’s still a lot of stigma around HIV and drug use. World AIDS Day was Dec. 1, and after that, awareness gets put away. But for us, it’s every day.
Q. Pope Benedict XVI signaled a change in attitude regarding condom use to prevent HIV. What is the significance of that change?
A. It’s good, but it’s about 25 years too late.
By Linda Ocasio/The Star-Ledger
Thursday, January 13, 2011