The nation's oldest association of black physicians, adding its voice to a growing debate among AIDS experts, doctors and police, said Thursday that it opposes the unconditional distribution of clean needles to drug addicts.
The association's statement puts it at odds with many AIDS service groups, such as the Minority AIDS Project in Los Angeles, which have advocated giving out sanitary drug paraphernalia in an effort to curb an AIDS epidemic among intravenous drug users.
"There is no evidence out there, in America, that says the free distribution of needles will make a dent in the problem," said Dr. Frank E. Staggers, president of the 16,100-member National Medical Assn.
While needle giveaway programs have been tried in Europe, none have been conducted in the United States. Last month, insurance problems stymied a Portland, Ore., social service agency that planned to start the first needle-exchange center in this country.
The medical group's statement came on the last day of its annual convention, held in Los Angeles, at which delegates adopted resolutions on a number of minority health issues.
Staggers said free needles will not necessarily encourage illegal drug use, as some law enforcement officials and other opponents of the programs have argued, but he expressed concern that the giveaways would not effectively control the spread of acquired immune deficiency syndrome.
"If you give people free needles, what if the syringe is unclean?" he asked. "If you give them clean 'works' (drug paraphernalia), are you also going to supply a clean drug?"
Calling the association's position "the same as (that of) President Reagan's AIDS Commission," Staggers said needle distribution should be conducted only as part of a wider program, including stepped-up counseling and treatment facilities and provisions for the return of used needles.
"Most local communities just want a quick fix," said Staggers, an Oakland urologist. "There's no quick fix, and we should concentrate out efforts on more fruitful measures."
Phillip Wilson, director of health education at the Minority AIDS Project, said he was "disappointed" by the NMA's announcement.
"We call for adequate detoxification programs for people who are drug users, including . . . the distribution of sanitary needles," he said. "People who are already chemically dependent cannot have the extra burden of HIV infection in their lives."