Despite warnings of a growing AIDS threat among intravenous drug users, Los Angeles County supervisors refused Tuesday to sanction a study that would consider such preventive measures as proving clean needles to drug addicts.
The controversial proposal to give addicts clean hypodermic needles in exchange for their dirty ones--in an effort to prevent transmission of the AIDS virus--is scheduled to be part of a pilot project in New York City, and the idea has been proposed by city officials in Boston and elsewhere.
But Supervisors Mike Antonovich and Deane Dana, two conservative members of the Los Angeles County board, balked at the suggestion by fellow Supervisor Ed Edelman that local health officials investigate these and other programs aimed at curbing the spread of AIDS among intravenous drug users.
"I can't imagine a situation here like New York City, and I can never go along with a program of handing out free needles," said Dana, arguing that the money for such a study should be spent on educating people to stay away from drugs.
Antonovich adamantly agreed and said that, given limited county resources, he had no interest in helping drug addicts who already may be breaking the law in order to support their habit.
"What we're going to do is tell them to use a clean needle so that when they go out and murder someone or rip off somebody's television set or Social Security check from a senior citizen, they are going to be in a little bit better health. And they'll be able to outrun the police," Antonovich said.
With the two other board members--Kenneth Hahn and Pete Schabarum--absent from the debate, Edelman needed the support of both remaining board members to go ahead with the study. But he could not budge his fellow supervisors from their hard-line stand even after trying to reassure them that county health officials would only study whether such programs as needle exchanges or providing vials of bleach to clean needles were effective in the fight against AIDS.
"We're not putting our blessing on it," Edelman told his colleagues. "Let's face it, gentlemen, this isn't a moral issue or a political issue but a medical issue: How can we stop the spread of AIDS?"
According to health officials, intravenous drug users account for only 132 of the 4,354 AIDS cases that have been confirmed in Los Angeles County. But that number has been increasing by 10 each month, they said.
In comparison, more than one-third of New York City's reported 13,128 adult AIDS cases have been intravenous drug users, according to Barry Adkins, a spokesman for the city's health department. More than half the city's 200,000 intravenous drug users--many of them Latinos and blacks--also may already be infected with the AIDS virus, Adkins said.
Despite the lack of support at the board, Robert Gates, Los Angeles County's health director, said hisdepartment will continue to consider ways to reach the population of intravenous drug users.
"This is a major area of concern for us because of the potential for spread," said Gates, adding that one of the primary routes for the AIDS virus into the heterosexual community is through the intravenous drug user.
In 1985, county supervisors condemned an anti-AIDS booklet, partly paid for by the county, that advised drug users to avoid using needles or to make sure they are clean. The board members contended at the time that the pamphlet encouraged drug use.