€750,000 donated by Elton John to help drug users never spent
A GENEROUS donation from pop star Elton John to combat the spread of HIV in Ireland has never been put to use.
Two years ago, the singer donated €750,000 to the Government for the provision of clean needles for drug addicts outside the capital.
However, the Irish Independent has learnt that the programme has yet to get off the ground and the money has never been used.
Despite several announcements of its imminent start-up, the life-saving scheme has been caught up in red tape and difficulties with recruiting pharmacists to provide the needles.
In recent weeks, the delay prompted the Elton John AIDS Foundation to renegotiate the terms of the deal.
The foundation has now told the Health Service Executive (HSE) it will withhold the promised funding unless progress is made with the scheme.
The foundation, which is chaired by Elton John's partner David Furnish and funded by glittering fundraising events, makes grant instalments rather than one block payment.
This means that further payments can be reviewed if the disease control programme is not up to standard.
Although it has not publicly criticised the HSE, the foundation wants strict reporting and reviews of the scheme's progress as part of the conditions of the grant, which will be paid out over three years.
Anne Aslett, executive director of the foundation, said a new contract was agreed last month.
Ms Aslett said "Thirteen per cent of the grant has been disbursed and the foundation will only provide further support against performance."
She conceded that the delays in the implementation of the programme had been frustrating, but not unusual in a large and complex project of this type.
Although the distribution of clean needles to addicts in Dublin has been under way for some years, there is no such service outside the city.
This is despite a worrying rise in the use of heroin outside the capital. Figures for 2010 show 22 drug users were newly diagnosed with HIV and 30 cases were reported in 2009.
Asked what progress had been made in rolling out the scheme, the HSE said a national liaison pharmacist had been appointed to oversee its implementation.
"We are finalising locations and a roll-out plan will be announced in due course," said a spokeswoman.
Responsibility for the drugs strategy was recently moved from the Department of Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs to the Department of Health
"It is envisaged that needle exchange services will begin in an initial group of pharmacies in the autumn," she said.