Heroin arrests and treatment are up in Appalachia, enlarging threat of HIV and hepatitis C outbreaks from unclean needles

Partly because it’s much cheaper than pain pills, heroin is “quickly making inroads in Southern and Eastern Kentucky,” the head of an anti-drug organization told Laura Ungar of The Courier-Journal.

Numbers show rank on Centers for Disease Control’s national list
of counties at risk for outbreak of HIV or hepatitis C from needles.

Nancy Hale is president and CEO of Operation UNITE (Unlawful Narcotics Investigations, Treatment and Education), which serves 32 Appalachian Kentucky counties and has law-enforcement powers. “Hale said they are arresting more people for small-time heroin offenses and hearing from ERs treating overdose victims,” Ungar reports. “One reason, she said, is that the drug provides a relatively cheap high. A hit of heroin in Appalachia costs about $5, compared with around $30 for one pain pill.”

Meanwhile, treatment centers in the region “are serving more people seeking to kick heroin and break the cycle of addiction,” Ungar reports. “At Hope in the Mountains, a women’s recovery facility in Prestonsburg, 22 of 36 clients are heroin addicts.”

Heroin started becoming more common in Kentucky’s major metropolitan areas after the legislature cracked down on pain pills in 2012, but took a while to reach rural areas because the supply chain from Mexico runs through major cities, then smaller ones, officials said. Now, in Hazard, “I’m definitely scared about heroin,” Police Chief Minor Allen told Ungar. “We already have syringes laying
around in playgrounds and neighborhoods. Anything that deals with shooting up is
scary.”

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers the region the most vulnerable in the nation to outbreaks of HIV and hepatitis C from sharing of needles by intravenous drug users, but only four counties in the area, Pike, Carter, Elliott and Knox, have syringe exchanges where users can get clean needles. The exchanges require city and county approval.

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