Responding to AIDS - Home |
About this Exhibit - Introduction |
AIDS Emerges |
Poised to Respond |
New Programs: Working Together |
Responding to Fear |
The AIDS Prevention Project |
A Leader in Research, Education, and Housing |
| Expanding Outreach | Needle Exchanges | The AIDS Omnibus Act: New Mandates | Safer Sex: The New Normal? | The Legacy | Gallery | Oral Histories | References and Resources
Sharing NeedlesBy 1991, injection drug users accounted for over 25 percent of AIDS cases nationwide. The figure was far lower in King County: three percent, with another nine percent among gay or bisexual men who were also injection drug users.
But with an estimated 12,000 to 14,000 intravenous drug users in King County, over 80 percent of whom shared needles, the risk of AIDS spreading in this community was great. Sharing needles put not only users at risk, but it also risked infecting their sexual partners, as well as the fetuses of pregnant partners.
The Public Health Department’s first strategy was educating users about the risks and distributing bleach to sterilize needles.
Successful Needle Exchanges Abroad and At Home
Needle exchanges originated in Europe, Canada, and Australia around 1984 as a means to minimize the risk of HIV and Hepatitis B transmission among people unable or unwilling to cease injection drug use. New sterile syringes were exchanged for old contaminated ones. Needle sharing and reuse were more likely in states like Washington, where state law prevented the purchase of syringes without a prescription. In the United States, the first publicly funded needle exchange was established in Tacoma in 1988.
The idea of distributing free syringes was seen by some as encouraging drug use. But the harm reduction approach to public health argued that even when a person’s behavior (in this case, drug use) doesn’t change, the harmful impact of that behavior could, and should, be minimized. Reducing the harm of contracting HIV and spreading it to others took priority over demanding abstinence.
King County and the City of Seattle, convinced that the program was effective and had not led to an increase in drug use, continued funding the program and have done so to the present day. Seven years later, the Public Health Department could claim that its needle exchange program was “probably the largest legal program in the country” (Dr. Robert Wood, 1996), exchanging over a million needles in that year.
Seattle's first needle exchangeSeattle’s own needle exchange began in March 1989, operated by the local branch of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP).
Stressing the benefits of public oversight, the Public Health Department successfully took over the program from ACT UP two months later and launched the new program with existing city and county funding. It was to be a two‐year pilot program subject to review and evaluation. The program also included referrals to drug treatment and social and health services and distribution of condoms and bleach.
Responding to AIDS
Content warning: The archival records featured in this exhibit discuss sexual behavior and illegal drug use. Please direct questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright King County Archives, Seattle Washington, June 2016.
Please note: This exhibit features historical materials relating to HIV/AIDS. For current health information, please visit Public Health, Seattle & King County - HIV/AIDS and STD Prevention and Education.
Oral histories produced with support from a 2015 4Culture Heritage Projects Grant.