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D.c.'s "modern Epidemic"

Ben Smith has an interesting item today about Hillary Clinton's newfound support for federal financing for needle exchange programs--a shift from the position of the Clinton administration in the 1990s. Smith points out that needle exchange isn't a central issue in the '08 campaign--not by a long shot--but a new report on Washington's AIDS infection rate proves that needle exchange and other HIV/AIDS prevention methods deserve more attention. The report--which provides the most comprehensive look at the disease in the District since 2000--calls the increase in HIV/AIDS cases a "modern epidemic." The numbers back up the grim diagnosis: D.C.'s infection rate is worse than any city in the country, and it is estimated that 1 in 20 adults in the city have HIV while 1 in 50 have cases of full-blown AIDS.

This is a crisis, and D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty has responded by identifying strategies to curb the growing infection rates. But the city has its hands tied when it comes to dealing with infections from intravenous drug use. In 1998, the Clinton administration signed a federal law that banned D.C. from using any local tax revenue to fund a needle exchange program. D.C. is the only city in the country to face such a ban, and as a result, offers only one needle exchange program that relies on private donations and reaches only a third of the estimated 9,700 intravenous drug users in the city.

To be clear, infection through intravenous drug use accounts for only a portion of HIV/AIDS cases in the District. The mayor's office has cited concrete plans to combat infection through unprotected sex and mother-to-infant transmission, such as expanding distribution of free condoms and increasing routine HIV testing in emergency rooms. But in the face of these harrowing statistics, D.C. should be able to use a full arsenal of programs to fight HIV/AIDS.  With the approval of the Clinton administration, Congress has stymied prevention programs for nearly 10 years.  Let's hope Hillary's change of heart is here to stay--she need only to look to the nation's capital to see why.

--Melanie Mason