EDITORIAL: Delegate Norton’s partisan public health policy

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Washington’s HIV/AIDS infection rate is triple the national average and as high as in some West African nations. According to D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, that’s not reason for introspection among District residents; it is reason to shift blame to Republicans.

In a letter posted on her Web site last week, Mrs. Norton claims the infection rate is “in large part” because the Republicans blocked the city from spending local money on needle-exchange programs when they controlled Congress, “at the cost of many lives and illness caused by the spread of the virus.” The partisan attack reveals ignorance of basic political realities as well as the dynamics of the spreading epidemic.

Democrats removed the needle-exchange ban after taking control of the House more than two years ago, Mrs. Norton acknowledges in her tirade, and Republicans are powerless to reinstitute the ban.

Blasting Republicans for something they can’t do seems beside the point when public health authorities report the District’s epidemic has other sources. Injection-drug use is just the third-leading cause of transmission in the District, behind homosexual sex and heterosexual encounters.

Mrs. Norton also ignores the significant role personal responsibility plays in spreading the illness. About half of D.C. residents connected to areas with the highest poverty and infection rates reported having overlapping sexual relationships with different partners in the previous year, according to a March study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by the George Washington University School of Health and Health Services.

Among those surveyed, seven in 10 reported not protecting themselves or their partners by using a condom during their most recent encounter. Just three in five could even say whether they had the disease. Having multiple partners and unprotected intercourse increases the chances of spreading the disease.

At root, Mrs. Norton is trying to avoid uncomfortable facts and replace them with a politically convenient fantasy. She isn’t really upset about Republicans’ long-dismantled needle-exchange policy. She wants to squelch calls by Republicans to investigate the District’s AIDS rate and continued questionable city spending. If Mrs. Norton really cares about AIDS, she should be encouraging efforts to address the District’s AIDS problem - based on public health reality - instead of trying to protect her political turf.

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