George Kerr is the Executive Director of START at Westminster here in SW. The program, which serves all district residents, is a harm reduction, prevention and awareness initiative that was implemented in 2008. START is an acronym for Syringe, Treatment, Advocacy, Resources and Training, which reflects the core element of the harm reduction philosophy. The mission of START is to reduce the transmissions of HIV, hepatitis and other blood borne diseases by empowering those at risk of infection with the tools, resources and referrals an individual needs to take charge of their health.
Recently, during the 26th AIDS Walk Washington, Kerr was recognized for his two decades work within the District with the prestigious “Courage Award” for his efforts, but he believes it’s the very clients START serves that keeps him doing the work that is so desperately needed. Within the District of Columbia approximately 3 percent of the city’s residents are infected with the virus. The stories of the clients Kerr hears on a daily basis are tough and each day multiple struggles are brought to Kerr’s attention. The stories and efforts of the clients START serves are what keeps Kerr going with the work that is so desperately needed. He believes in the possibility of an AIDS-free world.
Kerr believes an affective way to reduce the transmission of HIV, hepatitis and other blood borne diseases is through a needle exchange program. Currently, START does not and has not provided needles. They do give references to places that do. Even though research does show its effectiveness, needle exchange is a controversial concept that health advocates like Kerr have long argued prevents the spread of HIV and other diseases. However, the federal funding that has been implemented to support such efforts is under threat of being prohibited, just two years after Congress lifted the 21-year ban.
Since the main theme behind START is harm reduction, Kerr hopes to one day to have such services such as these available through START which would eventually provide sterile syringes to injection-drug users who are at high risk of contracting blood borne diseases. Kerr believes this would work well with the other services START currently provides including HIV counseling and testing, educational support, condom distribution and referrals for substance abuse treatment.
For START, outreach has grown tremendously because of the fact the program has a mobile unit that goes out into the community. He gives credit to a grant from the city’s HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis, STD and TB Administration (HAHSTA). In the last two years alone, the START crew has tested nearly 1,600 people per year. The numbers alone prove the need for harm reduction in the community is needed, so for Kerr it makes no sense to reinstate the ban on something like needle exchange programs, especially since a number of federally funded studies have shown that comprehensive syringe-exchange programs do help to prevent the spread of disease and do not increase illegal drug use. Advocates believe the threat of the ban’s reinstatement is not supported by scientific evidence and would only make matters worse.
By Ron McBee, the ANC Commissioner for single-member district 6D03.