Harm Reduction in the Nation's Capital

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A Statement on the Closure of PreventionWorks! from its Board of Directors
February 8, 2011

On February 25, 2011, PreventionWorks! will close its operations after over 12 years of life‐saving services as a non‐profit organization supporting individuals struggling with drug use and interrelated social and health challenges. PreventionWorks! has been a trail‐blazing effort in the nation’s capital to offer a practical set of prevention and health promotion strategies, including access to sterile syringes, to reduce the harmful consequences of drug use while treating drug users with respect and dignity. Most notably, PreventionWorks! has played an invaluable role in the prevention of HIV transmission, undoubtedly saving thousands of lives. In 2007, over 26% of women and 18% of all people living with HIV/AIDS in the District of Columbia reported contracting the disease from injection drug use.

PreventionWorks! began in 1996 as a project of the Whitman‐Walker Clinic. In 1998, PreventionWorks! incorporated as its own organization after the U.S. Congress passed legislation forbidding the District of Columbia from using its local government funds to support harm reduction services and prohibiting organizations that received federal funding from operating a syringe exchange program, even if funded with private donations. Like most harm reduction organizations across the country, financial viability for PreventionWorks! was always a challenge, but numerous private foundations and grantmaking charities and an army of volunteers helped sustain its work. In 2007, the law was changed to allow DC government funds to support syringe exchange. As a result, PreventionWorks! and several other local organizations began receiving DC government funding for their prevention programs.

Recent government support was critical to giving PreventionWorks! the potential for staying power, but unfortunately the organization was ultimately unable to build and sustain the financial and organizational capacity worthy of its work. As a result, the Board of Directors decided to close the agency so supporters could turn their resources and volunteerism to more sustainable organizations. The PreventionWorks! Board of Directors feels great sadness and disappointment toward this ending, but made the difficult decision based on financial realities. The closure of the agency marks the end of a historic chapter in the city’s battle against HIV/AIDS. PreventionWorks! closes with 11 dedicated staff and hundreds of volunteers.

In part due to the advocacy and endurance of PreventionWorks!, government funds became available for harm reduction and syringe exchange, and as a result, other organizations in Washington, DC now provide such services. While PreventionWorks! made unique contributions to the District’s public health system that will not easily be replaced, it is fortunate that PreventionWorks! is shutting its doors at a time when there are other options for clients. Still, outreach and support services for drug users, including sterile syringe access, are not nearly to scale. In the absence of PreventionWorks!, it will be critical for the government and private funders to increase their support for those organizations that can step up to fill the void.

The PreventionWorks! Board of Directors would like to thank the private donors that supported the organization for so many years when the government could not, and the DC Department of Health for its critical support in more recent years. The Board also salutes the past and current staff who can stand tall for having saved thousands of lives over the past 12 years and for believing that any positive change in an individual’s life is indeed positive change. Even as the organization closes, PreventionWorks! staff has put the clients first. Above all, we acknowledge the courage and resilience of the PreventionWorks! clients themselves, who, despite the disease and stigma of drug use, have continued to persevere through their journeys of recovery in a society that has failed to provide adequate and effective resources for people struggling with addiction.

Washington, DC has the highest rate of new AIDS cases in the country with an estimated 1 in 20 residents living with HIV. The CDC estimates that injection drug use has directly and indirectly accounted for more than one-third of AIDS cases in the United States. Over the past decade, PreventionWorks! has evolved from a needle exchange organization into a critical part of the District of Columbia's HIV prevention strategy.
PreventionWorks! today offers tools, information and services for leading healthier lives. We provide sterile injection equipment, harm reduction supplies, safe disposal of used supplies, HIV testing (with results in 20 minutes), drug treatment referrals, wound care and safer sex kits, food, education, trainings, support groups and HIV medical case management/treatment adherence.