Syringe-exchange program

The following editorial appeared in the Herald-Dispatch, Huntington, on July 13:

Officials in Cabell County have been working for months on ways to respond to the impact of a skyrocketing heroin addiction problem in the region, one that’s also reflective of what’s happening in many other parts of West Virginia.

Leading the way have been officials with the Cabell-Huntington Health Department and the Huntington Mayor’s Office of Drug Control Policy, with about 30 other partner agencies also involved. The focus has been on establishing what health officials call a harm reduction program that not only hopes to steer addicts toward treatment and recovery but also provide a syringe-exchange program so that needles are not reused and contributing to the spread of hepatitis and setting the stage for an outbreak of HIV.

The health department’s board approved the syringe-exchange program on June 25, setting an expected start date of Sept. 1 for the state’s first syringe-exchange initiative.

What seemed to be lacking was state involvement, at least publicly. That finally changed on July 2, when Dr. Rahul Gupta, commissioner of the West Virginia Bureau for Public Health, and Karen Bowling, secretary of the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, showed up in Huntington. They announced that the DHHR would contribute $10,000 cash and $10,000 in technical support toward the program. They described the Cabell County initiative as a pilot program for the state that can help guide future efforts to combat the rise in overdoses, overdose deaths and the diseases that accompany intravenous drug use and needle sharing. In that context, it’s somewhat disappointing that the state isn’t contributing more, considering the ramifications of the heroin epidemic.

Gupta noted that West Virginia ranks first among all states in incidence of Hepatitis B, with a rate of 10.6 cases per 100,000 people, as opposed to the national rate of 0.9 per 100,000. He also pointed out that the state’s rate of Hepatitis C is also alarming.

Just as alarming, if not more so, is that overdose deaths in the state have increased 600 percent in the past 10 years, as Bowling reminded those at the July 2 press conference.

That far-reaching impact is why the state’s involvement is warranted, in fact overdue.

Along with giving heroin users a free, clean needle without repercussions, the program being implemented in Cabell County would also provide them with education about recovery services and how to prevent the spread of disease, as well as testing for disease, giving referral for treatment and offering peer recovery counseling. The hope is that many will seek help to end their addiction. A similarly designed program in Portsmouth, Ohio, has reported good results.

The state’s contribution no doubt will help Cabell County’s program get off the ground, but local officials say a top-notch initiative that they envision could cost as much as $250,000 a year. Local officials are seeking other grant funds to help support it, but West Virginia officials should be prepared to kick in more funding to ensure that the county’s initiative has a sufficient test to determine its effectiveness.

As Huntington Mayor Steve Williams and others have noted, addressing the state’s drug addiction problem is vital for the state to move forward economically. Another factor is that besides the loss of life, the cost of treating diseases associated with intravenous drug use is a burden for taxpayers in many cases.

That’s why the state should not hesitate to invest more in this program if needed to ensure it has a good opportunity to make a difference and serve as a proving ground for other areas of the state.


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