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W.Va.’s first needle exchange sees 15 patients

09/03/2015 - The Charleston Gazette-Mail. By Lydia Nuzum.

CHARLESTON - Fifteen people showed up Wednesday during West Virginia’s first needle exchange program, a showing county health officials hope will grow as trust in the program builds.

The Cabell-Huntington Health Department, in partnership with the state Department of Health and Human Resources and the city of Huntington, announced in July that it would launch the syringe exchange and harm-reduction program for intravenous drug users. Wednesday marked the first day of the program, held between 1 and 3 p.m. at the Health Department, according to Dr. Michael Kilkenny, health director of the Cabell-Huntington Health Department.

“We were really pleased that they even came in; the leap of faith and the amount of trust for someone to even come in is beyond what someone who’s not addicted would understand,” Kilkenny said.

Of the 15, two had suspected skin infections, one of which was confirmed and treated, and three asked to see treatment counselors. The program has four treatment counselors on hand from Recovery Point of Huntington, a local recovery center for men, Prestera and Her Place, a women’s addiction outreach center in Huntington.

According to Kilkenny, counselors were not surprised that more of the patients did not seek counseling, but they hope those who return will eventually feel comfortable enough to seek treatment.

“We made it known [the counselors] were present. The counselors were not surprised — many of these addiction recovery coaches are are in recovery themselves — and they were not surprised that someone came to a new service like this and did not take full advantage of it but were instead more interested in getting in and getting out and hoping they weren’t arrested.”

The harm-reduction services are provided alongside the Health Department’s normal operations, and the program is discreet, Kilkenny said. Despite this, none of the first 15 patients opted to be tested for hepatitis or HIV, or to receive a hepatitis B vaccination.

“I think, as trust builds and the service is used by more people, we’re going to see a higher level of engagement,” he said.

According to the West Virginia Bureau for Public Health, 3,000 West Virginians have died from drug overdoses in the past five years, and 450 of those deaths can be attributed to heroin, an increasingly popular drug of choice among intravenous drug users.

Hepatitis B and C are viral infections that can cause chronic and acute liver damage. In West Virginia, 10.6 cases of hepatitis B per 100,000 people were reported in 2013, well above the national average of 0.9 cases per 100,000 people, according to the DHHR.

Even as the national average has dropped, the rate has increased in West Virginia over the past four years, from 4.7 in 2010 to 6.1 in 2011 and 7.6 in 2012. The rate of hepatitis C also is concerning — in 2013, 3.1 cases per 100,000 people were reported in West Virginia, compared to 0.7 cases per 100,000 people across the country.

In a May study, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that hepatitis C cases in four Appalachian states — Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia —more than tripled between 2006 and 2012.

Needle exchange programs offer free sterile syringes and collect used syringes from injection-drug users to reduce the spread of blood-borne pathogens, including HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C. Multiple studies have documented that they reduce the risk of HIV infection among injection-drug users and their partners.

Dr. Michael Brumage, the new director and health officer for the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, said last week that he hopes to replicate the Cabell County model in Kanawha and Putnam counties in the near future.

“It’s not just about syringe exchange — there’s a whole package of services that go along with it,” Brumage said. “We know from the evidence in the literature already — 160 programs across the country have shown great success with reducing the number of those addicted and getting people into recovery, as well as in reducing the diseases that go along with IV drug abuse, so we’re not going to wait any longer than we have to to implement this.”