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October 16, 2004 - The Times (Trenton, NJ)

Editorial: Life-And-Death Issue

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At least 900 children have died in New Jersey in the past 10 years because of AIDS and HIV-related illnesses - an average of two every week.

Did they deserve to die because they indulged in intravenous drug use or unprotected sex? That's the cold-blooded attitude some people have toward AIDS victims.

No; these hundreds of little victims did nothi

g to cause the disease that claimed their lives. They were infected in their mother's wombs. Many of the mothers themselves were victims of the collateral damage wrought by AIDS. They contracted the virus from their sexual partners who, in turn, had gotten it from contaminated heroin needles.

The fact is that nobody "deserves" to get AIDS. It's the responsibility of a decent society to do everything it reasonably can do to stem the spread of infection, even among drug addicts. That means providing adequate treatment facilities for addicts who sincerely desire to break the habit.

And it means taking steps to ensure that even those users who cling to their addiction have access to clean needles - for their own sake, for the sake of their wives or girlfriends, and for the sake of the babies to whom those women will give birth.

Political leaders in other states know this, and have acted with compassion on that knowledge. New Jersey and Delaware are the only two states that forbid both the sale of syringes without a prescription and the establishment of needle-exchange programs that allow a drug user to swap a used needle for a clean one.

Needle exchange, properly managed, is endorsed by leading public-health authorities and backed up by comprehensive studies showing that it reduces the spread of HIV/AIDS and doesn't encourage drug use.

New Jersey, however, which clings to its punitive laws, leads the nation in the rate of AIDS and HIV resulting from shared-needle use - twice the national average. New Jersey also leads in the rate of HIV/AIDS infection among women, and has the third highest rate among children.

It's an enduring disgrace that New Jersey underfunds its drug treatment and rehabilitation facilities. But how can one describe the continuing refusal of our state's politicians to allow life-saving needle-exchange programs and over-the-counter sales of syringes? That's beyond disgraceful.

New Jersey has the opportunity at hand to reform. Earlier this month, the Assembly approved two carefully crafted bills sponsored by Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Roberts, D-Brooklawn; Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, D-Princeton, and others, that would authorize municipalities to set up exchange programs under strict guidelines, and would allow adults to purchase up to 10 syringes without a prescription. The measures have the support of Gov. James E. McGreevey, who belatedly - post-resignation speech, that is - has decided to govern in the public interest.

But the bills have encountered tough going in the Senate Health Committee, where they failed to muster a majority last week. The chief roadblock is Sen. Ronald Rice, D-Newark, an ex-cop whose visceral disgust for drug users has robbed him of perspective and judgment.

Far more discouraging than Sen. Rice's blind resistance is the attitude of three Republicans who normally approach issues objectively but are opposing the bills for what smells like political reasons: Robert W. Singer of Jackson, a co-sponsor of needle-exchange legislation in the past; Diane Allen of Burlington Township, and Tom Kean Jr. of Westfield. They argue that what is really needed is more money for treatment - although treatment initiatives and needle exchange are obviously complementary, not mutually exclusive.

The bills' prime sponsor, Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Woodbridge, who chairs the committee, says he'll try to educate his colleagues and will give them "plenty of time to hear about the issue." Sadly, while these public servants struggle with their learning curve, innocent children are dying - three every week.

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