PROVIDENCE, R.I. Doctors in 48 states can legally prescribe sterile syringes to drug addicts to prevent transmission of HIV and other infections, according to a study co-authored by a Brown University researcher and published this week in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
In Rhode Island, a group of Brown doctors has prescribed more than 30,000 syringes to nearly 250 injection-drug users in a little-known program that started in the spring of 1999. Far from encouraging drug use, the clinic opened a doorway to addiction treatment for some participants, study co-author Dr. Josiah Rich, of Brown and Miriam Hospital said.
The Annals study, described as the first thorough analysis of the legality of prescribing and dispensing syringes, points to a new avenue for getting sterile syringes to people who cannot or will not stop injecting drugs.
Although there are numerous needle-exchange programs around the country, they reach a tiny minority of drug users, and only six states have passed laws legalizing syringe purchases at the drugstore.
Prescribing needles to injection-drug users "should be mainstream medicine," said Dr. Peter Lurie, of the Public Citizen Health Research Group and one of the study's authors.
Lurie said the group thinks physicians are ethically obligated, in areas where it's legal, to prescribe syringes to those patients who are injecting drugs. He said the American Medical Assn. supports the practice.
Lurie said that numerous studies have shown that providing needles to addicts does not increase drug use, but does lower the rate of HIV infection.
Delaware and Kansas are the only two states where it is "clearly illegal" for physicians to prescribe sterile needles to drug addicts.