More than 100 at SOAR Substance Abuse Roundtable committed to work on prevention and treatment efforts in region

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

More than 100 people attended the Shaping Our Appalachian Region Substance Abuse Roundtable April 7 to learn about current research and emerging opportunities associated with substance abuse and intravenous drug use in region, according to a SOAR news release.

SOAR is a bipartisan effort to revitalize and diversify the economy in Kentucky’s 54 Appalachian counties. It has advisory councils for each of its 10 areas of focus, one of which is community health and wellness.

That council’s chair, former state health commissioner Dr. William Hacker, facilitated the roundtable at Natural Bridge State Resort Park.

As part of the solutions-driven discussion, Susan Zepeda, CEO of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, told the attendees that it is important to ask the right questions when gathering information about drug abuse to accurately depict what is going on in the region.

“When you ask people if they have a problem with prescription drugs they, of course, say no,” Zepeda said. “When you ask them if they know someone, like a family member or friend, that answer is very different.”

The group also discussed the importance of getting accurate data about substance abuse and overdose into the right hands to make progress on these issues.

“We want to get data into the hands of legislators and those who can do something about prescription-drug overdose,” said Dana Quesinberry, public-health-policy and program evaluator for the Kentucky Injury Prevention and Research Center at the University of Kentucky. “Sitting in a repository, it doesn’t do anything for anyone.”

The roundtable members also discussed needle-exchange programs, authorized under the state’s 2015 anti-heroin law. The program is meant to slow the spread of HIV and hepatis C, which are commonly spread by sharing of needles among intravenous drug users.

“We’ve seen a switch from using pills as an opioid to using intravenous methods,” said Greg Lee, the HIV/AIDS continuing-education program director for the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services.

Clark County Health Director Scott Lockard said the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a “wake-up call” with its report identifying 54 Kentucky counties as being among the 220 most vulnerable in the nation for the rapid spread of HIV and hepatitis C infection among intravenous drug users. Most of the counties, and eight of the top 10, were Appalachian.

“We are potentially on the leading edge of one of the biggest public health crises to hit our state,” Lockard said in an e-mail to Kentucky Health News. “It will take a combined effort across sectors to prevent an HIV outbreak in the SOAR region such as the one that occurred in Scott County, Indiana,” just north of Louisville.

Although many Kentucky county officials are talking about needle-exchange programs, so far only Louisville and Lexington and the counties of Boyd, Carter, Clark, Elliott, Franklin, Grant, Harrison, Jessamine, Knox, Pendleton and Pike are either operating or have approved such programs. Of these, Boyd, Carter, Clark, Elliott, Knox and Pike are part of SOAR.

The news release noted that participants left the discussion with a commitment to continue the conversation and to build a strategic plan to address substance abuse issues in the region, with a focus on clinical practices, health systems, drug screenings and other best practices.
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