Louisville opens first needle exchange in state; officials predict rural counties will be slow to follow

Photo by Scott Utterback, The Courier-Journal
Louisville Metro Public Health & Wellness opened its mobile needle-exchange program Wednesday, June 10, making Louisville the first place in Kentucky to implement such a program.

Lexington and Northern Kentucky are expected to follow soon, but officials say that establishing needle exchanges in much of Kentucky will be “more politically complex,” Mike Wynn reports for The Courier-Journal.

“We’re going to see some parts of our state where this is available and others where it is not,” Scott Lockard, president of the Kentucky Health Departments Association, told Wynn. “Rural areas are opting for a slow and deliberate approach, heavy on education and dialogue,” he said, and some communities won’t even consider a exchange because of “seemingly endless hoops to jump through.”

Bullitt County, south of Louisville, is a prime example. There, officials told Wynn that they plan to do a needs assessment and host a community forum with input from law enforcement and mental health experts.

“It’s a work in progress,” Public Health Director Andrea Renfrow told Wynn. “We are not able to go as quickly as Louisville Metro.”

One critic, Magistrate Joe Laswell, told Wynn that he had talked to many voters who are against the exchanges and want to know why police wouldn’t arrest addicts when they show up to swap out dirty needles. “I believe in charging and incarcerating,” he said, apparently unaware that the addicts would need to have drugs in their possession to be charged.

Lockard, who heads the Clark County Health Department, told Wynn that he won’t ask his board to take a vote until August and that he can’t predict the political outcome when it goes to city and county officials.

In three other Bluegrass counties, Scott, Harrison and Nicholas, the board of the Wedco District Health Department wants to start a needle exchange, reports The Cynthiana Democrat, but can’t proceed in any of the counties without approval of the fiscal court.

So, despite the two-year debate that just ended in Frankfort over the law, it’s not really over.

Democratic state Rep. John Tilley of Hopkinsville, the legislature’s biggest proponent for needle exchanges, told Wynn that giving city councils and fiscal courts final authority over the programs was necessary to sooth critics and pass a comprehensive heroin bill this year.

Opponents of the law say the exchanges promote drug use, while proponents cite evidence that doesn’t support those claims, but instead “help prevent the spread of deadly and expensive diseases and pull addicts into treatment programs while keeping dirty needles out of parks and off the streets,” Wynn writes.

A Lexington Herald-Leader editorial wrote about needle exchanges: “Congressional critics rely on a gut feeling that providing needles endorses drug use, but 20 years of research argues otherwise.” Listing that where there are syringe exchange programs:

  • Participants are five times more likely to get treatment.
  • HIV and hepatitis C declines among drug users.
  • Participants can get referrals to substance abuse treatment, disease prevention education, vaccinations, condoms, counseling and testing for communicable diseases.
  • Costs are more than recaptured. A 2011 European study found that $1 spent on needle-exchange programs yielded $27 in health-care cost savings, prompting an international report to call needle exchanges “one of the most cost-effective public health interventions ever funded.”

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that new cases of hepatitis C more than tripled in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia between 2006 and 2012, mainly from the use of dirty needles. Officials fear an outbreak of HIV and AIDS will follow.

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