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As we commemorate World AID’s Day, let us take a moment to reflect on how far we have come in the last several decades.

At the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1990s, an estimated 200,000 New Yorkers had AIDS. Yet the life-saving idea of funding a program that provided clean needles to drug addicts was something New York politicians didn’t dare touch. In 1988, the use of federal funds for syringe exchange programs had been banned because the practice was considered too controversial.

Critics claimed that clean needle programs encouraged addiction. Meanwhile, legal restrictions on syringe access coupled with an intensive law enforcement crackdown had led to a severe shortage of syringes that resulted in widespread needle-sharing and HIV/AIDS transmission among drug injectors. Half of intravenous drug users were HIV positive.

Robin Hood wasn’t afraid to take on the issue. By removing dirty needles from circulation, we could help stem the spread of AIDS, hepatitis and other critical diseases, and we could help prevent the transmission of AIDS to unborn children.

To us, the issue was simple: a 97-cent needle could save lives. In contrast, treating an HIV positive person without healthcare costs taxpayers $90,000–125,000 a year, making syringe exchange not only a health issue but a significant economic one as well.
In 1993, Robin Hood made its first needle exchange grant of $40,000 to a program in East Harlem called New York Harm Reduction Educators. Robin Hood would continue to be the city’s largest private funder of needle exchanges for the next two decades.

Since Robin Hood began funding syringe exchanges in 1993, the rate of HIV infection among injection-drug users in New York City has declined to 13% from 50%. What once seemed like a risky strategy — providing clean needles to intravenous drug users — has gone mainstream. The state government has stepped in to cover the cost of clean needles, and Robin Hood continues to fund programs that provide supportive services that connect intravenous drug users to needed health and housing services.

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