Hundreds of AIDS activists descended on the Department of Health and Human Services on Wednesday carrying symbolic tombstones as they protested the ban on federal funding for needle exchange programs.
Thirteen people were arrested after trying to carry a 12-foot “moral backbone” into the building for Secretary Donna Shalala, who has said the needle exchange programs can be effective in fighting AIDS but has stopped short of lifting the ban.
“I have known people who have died of contaminated needles. It’s not necessary,” said Kate Sorensen of San Francisco, one of the protesters arrested.
Shalala was in the building during the rally, which organizers said attracted 2,000 people.
About one-third of adults with AIDS got the killer virus through contaminated needles or sex with drug users.
There were at least 87 needle exchange programs around the country in 1995-96, operating with local or private funding.
To lift the ban on federal funding, HHS must certify that the programs reduce AIDS without increasing drug use.
A panel of experts convened by the National Institutes of Health said early this year that these programs are a powerful weapon against AIDS that have been blocked by politics.
But the department is still studying whether needle exchanges increase drug use, HHS spokesman Victor Zonana said Wednesday.