2017-07-05 / News

Needle exchange may begin here in October


A plan to curtail the spread of hepatitis C, HIV and other blood borne diseases is expected to begin actively exchanging IV drug needles here by October.

Mountain Comprehensive Health Corporation on Friday formally announced its participation in the Letcher County Harm Reduction Project. The Harm Reduction Project is a program of Letcher County United for Substance Abuse Prevention and funded through the state Agency for Substance Abuse Policy. Project coordinator Mallory Webb met with Dr. Van Breeding and others from MCHC on Friday to finalize plans for the clinics to participate.

Dr. Breeding at the MCHC said Friday that the health organization will be offering the exchange at all of its clinics, along with drug counseling.

“It’s not promoting IV drug use, it’s promoting the health of IV drug users, and people who don’t use,” Breeding said. “We’re not only trying to prevent the spread of diseases, we’re trying to offer treatment (for addiction).”

Hepatitis C can be passed through any body fluid, and is a danger to anyone who has sex or other close physical contact with an infected person. An estimated 10 percent of the population in Letcher County has Hep C, Breeding said. That puts non-drug users at risk if they are stuck by a dirty needle, have sex with an infected person, or otherwise become exposed to blood or body fluids.

Because of the disease’s prevalence, the Centers for Disease Control has identified eastern Kentucky as an area at increased risk for an outbreak of HIV, which is transmitted in many of the same ways as Hep C. Hepatitis C is more easily contracted in because it is passed in more ways than HIV and can live on environmental surfaces for up to three weeks at room temperature. HIV can survive in dried blood for up to six days.

USAP has had Harm Reduction grants for two years, but the program has focused on public information building up to the needle exchange. Pike County and Floyd County, also in the 54-county at risk area, have already started their needle exchanges.

“We want to bring about more awareness and we want to get it rolled out, because it’s a critical health matter,” Breeding said.

The program here will be administered through local health clinics and doctors’ offices. People who need to exchange needles will make an appointment just like any other patient, be called in like any other patient, receive counseling, a sharps container to dispose of used needles, and new needles. Needles will be exchanged on a one-forone basis, so patients with no used needles to turn in won’t get clean ones.

Some other counties and cities distribute needles from only one location and for limited hours, or distribute them from vans that run a regular route.

The system here is intended to avoid identifying people as addicts, and remove the stigma associated with showing up at a fixed location at a certain time of day. The system here will allow people who are addicted to show up like any other patient, and no one will know why they are there.

Breeding said they have heard complaints that people don’t want to be sitting in the waiting rooms next to addicts, but he said they already are.

“They just don’t know it,” he said.

Diabetics have reported people trying to buy used needles, and needles have been found in the railroad caboose used as a tourism exhibit in Whitesburg and on streets. If used needles go into the trash, they can stick sanitation workers, and if they are thrown on the roadside, they can stick volunteers and others picking up litter.

Letcher County Deputy Sheriff Eugene Slone, who serves as chairman of United for Substance Abuse Prevention, said USAP still has to coordinate with the Letcher County Board of Health and Appalachian Regional Healthcare. Breeding said ARH has committed to him that it will participate, but USAP still has to meet with the board of health.

“We’re in the process of getting a meeting between all three entities so we can all get on the same page,” Slone said.

Slone said sustaining the program may be the biggest obstacle, but USAP is applying for another grant from Kentucky ASAP this fall. Breeding said MCHC is also applying for a behavioral health grant to provide drug treatment.

The makers of Higher Ground, a community performance in Harlan County, are working on a sequel to that play to promote the needle exchange program in Letcher County. The play will be performed at the old Whitesburg High School, now owned by MCHC, during at MCHC’s health fair during the Mountain Heritage Festival in September.

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