UK researcher calls for change in state law to allow syringe exchange program to curb hepatitis C epidemic in Eastern Ky.

Despite the benefits associated with syringe- or needle-exchange programs in preventing the spread of hepatitis C, Kentucky law still prohibits them, and a researcher from the University of Kentucky is calling upon policymakers to help curb this public health threat in Eastern Kentucky.

Syringe exchange programs were first created 30 years ago in response to the AIDS epidemic, and they are an important component of a comprehensive disease prevention strategy, says the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Yet, Kentucky law prohibits them even though federally funded programs have successfully reduced disease transmission.

A recent study of 500 Appalachian drug users found that nearly two-thirds of them were infected with hepatitis C, reports Stu Johnson of WEKU News. Transmission of the disease in rural Appalachian communities is predominantly due to injection drug use, but community opposition and legal restrictions are barriers to establishing exchange programs.

UK epidemiologist Jennifer Havens would like to see a change in the state law to establish syringe exchange programs in Kentucky. She says these programs don’t encourage drug use, which has in the past been an incorrect perception that can inhibit exchange adoption, says the CDC. The programs can instead reduce disease transmission.

“I don’t think anyone walking by the program, the syringe service program, is going to say, `I’m going to start doing drugs today because there’s a syringe service program.’ All it does is allow folks who are already injecting a safer way, a safer source of syringes and potentially program that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to access,” Havens told Johnson.

Haven’s previous research, which examined individual and network factors among Appalachian drug users, found an association between injection of prescription opioids and hepatitis C. The study concluded that efforts preventing drug users’ transition to injection, especially
among prescription opioid users, may curb transmission of the disease. 

One public health tool that has successfully reduced disease transmission in other states is the creation of a syringe exchange program, says the CDC. In addition to asking for a policy change, Havens is calling for federal funding to establish syringe exchange programs in an area of Kentucky particularly impacted by the disease: the eastern region.

“In talking to a lot of the leaders in Eastern Kentucky, I haven’t necessarily approached this issue in particular, but they are at their breaking point with regard to what do we do about this epidemic, so I think, actually at the end of the day, a syringe service program would probably be fairly welcome,” Havens told Johnson.

Beyond reducing the spread of hepatitis C, syringe exchanges can also bring abusers into drug treatment programs, says Havens. The programs are reported to effectively link hard to reach drug users with prevention services, such as screening and drug abuse/ recovery programs, says the CDC. 

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