Virginia will get its first needle exchange program this year in an effort to prevent disease in the state. The public health initiative will most likely begin in or near Wise County, in southwestern Virginia. Officials hope to stem the tide of infectious diseases fueled by the epidemic of opioid abuse and addiction.
A new state law authorizing needle exchange programs went into effect in July of this year. Under the law, 55 counties are eligible to create needle exchange programs. But so far, only Wise County has submitted an application to begin one.
In the last ten years, Wise County, with a population of 40,000, has seen 120 deaths from opioid overdoses. Additionally, the rate of hepatitis C in the county is twice the state average.
Elaine Martin is the director of HIV prevention services with the Virginia Department of Public Health. She told local media that the health department had expected a more vigorous response to the newly authorized opportunity.
“We anticipated it to roll out maybe a little quicker than it has,” she said.
Martin also said that the health department has reviewed the application from Wise County. A site visit has been completed, and she expects the program to be authorized soon.
Needle Exchange Programs Reduce Disease
Sam Rasoul, a Democratic member of the House of Delegates from Roanoke, voted for the needle exchange program. He said that science has shown that the programs are successful in reducing the rate of disease.
“I think that we need a multi-pronged approach to the opioid epidemic and the drug issue that we have in Southwest Virginia,” said Rasoul. “We need to make sure we’re open to the data and what the data is telling us, and that’s things like syringe exchanges work in many cases.”
Martin of the health department applauded politicians like Rasoul and others who are trying to find solutions to the state’s current health crisis.
“I think it’s really exciting that they have been the leaders in this and are showing the state the way to go and are jumping right in,” she said.
Harm Reduction Is Critical
The nationwide epidemic of opioid abuse is causing a health crisis beyond overdoses. Occasionally, people who are prescribed pharmaceutical opioids become addicted while using the powerful pain medications. But once their prescriptions run out, they sometimes turn to using heroin intravenously.
Used hypodermic syringes present their own health hazards. They are often the vehicle of communicable diseases such as HIV and hepatitis.
The incidence of hepatitis C has shot up in Virginia. Last year, 2141 new cases of the disease among those 18-30 years of age were reported in the state. That number was up from 840 only six years earlier. The 18-30 age group is the one most likely to use drugs intravenously.
Martin said the spike in hepatitis C has officials worried about what’s next.
“The dramatic increases in hepatitis C have been concerning,” Martin said. “Hepatitis C comes before HIV, so we’re really trying to get services in place to stop that from happening.”