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Needles instead of HIV

TAINTED DRUG needles are a prime conduit for the HIV virus. Two district attorneys, despite their concerns about drug addiction, have joined the coalition favoring the over-the-counter sale of clean needles to inhibit the spread of AIDS and other blood-borne diseases. Governor Romney should end his opposition to this important measure, which has the support of his own Public Health Department.

''We don't want to do anything that facilitates illegal drug use," said Eric Fehrnstrom, Romney's spokesman. The governor has three concerns: that over-the-counter sales might encourage young people to experiment with injectable drugs; that, unlike needle exchange programs now allowed under state law in four communities, these sales might not be accompanied by medical advice; and that disposal of dirty needles would be a problem.

Forty-seven states allow the sale of needles in drug stores without a prescription. The governor should check to determine whether anyone in the rest of the country thinks needle disposal is a problem or that drug use among young people has risen. Middlesex County District Attorney Martha Coakley changed her mind about needle sales after she inquired about the impact of a needle exchange program in Cambridge and found that there was no increase in criminal activity.

Needle exchanges are useful to prevent disease, but only Cambridge, Boston, Northampton, and Provincetown allow them. They can be controversial, as the selectmen in Westport discovered last week when they tried to start one in town. And because they involve special outreach by public health workers, they are more complicated than a simple purchase at a drug store.

Romney's Public Health Department has found that 39 percent of HIV cases in the state are linked to dirty needles. Drug users would be more likely to use clean needles if they could buy them without bother.

Coakley testified at a State House hearing this week on behalf of a bill sponsored by Senator Robert O'Leary, Democrat of Barnstable, that would mandate that a pamphlet of medical information accompany the sale, answering another of Romney's objections.

Expressing his support, Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley said drug dealers are despicable but the drug user is in a different category, and an enlightened society should strive to prevent these people from being infected by dirty needles.

Several studies have shown that when clean needles are widely available, the transmission of HIV through drug injections drops precipitously. No responsible official would condone illegal drug use, but the need to prevent the spread of this disease should outweigh disapproval of destructive behavior, especially since such disapproval has so little impact.

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