Needle exchanges slowly spread as locals conclude they’re better than HIV and hepatitis outbreaks, injuries from discarded syringes

Needle exchanges may be difficult for some people to accept, but they are better than outbreaks of hepatitis and HIV or accidental injury from discarded needles, officials in Kentucky counties that have established the exchanges told Bill Estep of the Lexington Herald-Leader.

“Programs allowing intravenous drug users to exchange dirty syringes
for clean ones are spreading in Kentucky as communities confront growing
heroin abuse and concerns over the potential for disease outbreaks
caused by addicts sharing needles,” Estep reports. “So far, health departments and
local governments in 13 counties have approved needle exchanges, and 11
are in operation, according to the state Cabinet for Health and Family
Services and local officials.”

Kentucky leads the nation in hepatitis C cases and has 54 of the 220 counties that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers most at risk for HIV or hepatitis outbreaks from shared needles, based on “statistics such as numbers of overdose deaths, per capita income, unemployment and sales of painkillers,” Estep notes. “Kentucky had 18 counties that the CDC calculated to be more vulnerable than Scott County, Indiana, to a disease outbreak among IV drug users, with Wolfe County considered at greatest risk in the nation.”

A version of this map appeared on Kentucky Health News May 5. This one adds needle-exchange sites.

Some local officials “said they’ve faced concerns that giving needles to drug users enables or condones illegal drug activity, or will make the local drug problem worse,” Estep reports. Republican Judge-Executive Mike Malone of Carter County “said he shared those concerns when officials from the health department brought up the idea.

Malone said he changed his mind because of the potential for the program to head off disease and get addicts into treatment.

“It’s not about enabling them to take drugs. It’s about stopping the spread of disease,” Malone said. “The more you learn about it, the more you’ll understand it’s the right thing to do.”

Estep reports, “Health officials said they understand some people don’t like the idea of providing drug users with needles at public expense, but they argue the potential cost to taxpayers of not doing so is far worse.”

Needle exchanges are operated by local health departments with approval of the county health board, the fiscal court and the city where the exchange is located, under a law passed by the 2015 General Assembly.

UPDATE, July 22: “Clark County’s needle exchange opened a week ago with one client.” Fred Petke reports for The Winchester Sun. “Local officials are good with that.” Clark County Health Department director Scott Lockard told Petke in an email, “Some of the health departments had their exchanges open several weeks before having their first client.”

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