Public health officials, wary of HIV outbreak in Indiana, hope to launch needle exchanges here soon

04/15/2015 07:38 PM

As Kentucky lawmakers debated a wide-ranging bill to address the state’s growing heroin epidemic, HIV cases linked to intravenous drug use exploded in the small city of Austin, Ind.

Public health officials say that outbreak helped galvanize support in the General Assembly for needle-exchange programs, which have been enacted through a 30-day emergency order by Indiana Gov. Mike Pence in response to the soaring HIV cases in the southeastern Indiana community.

“I think it sent enough of a shockwave through the General Assembly that it gave a lot of people pause to rethink their position on needle exchange because over and over again in communities that have a heroin problem or an IV-drug-using problem they have seen hepatitis C goes up and HIV follows after that,” said Dr. Lynne Saddler, district director for the Northern Kentucky Health Department that covers Boone, Campbell, Grant and Kenton counties.

“And our HIV rates are, right now, remaining pretty constant, pretty level, but I can’t say that’s going to last forever.”

Saddler said she would like to have a syringe-exchange program up and running within six months. She and health directors in Louisville and Lexington have been meeting with the Kentucky Department for Public Health in crafting policies for such exchanges.

Dr. Stephanie Mayfield Gibson, head of the department, said pilot projects could be established at the University of Kentucky, University of Louisville and St. Elizabeth Healthcare in Edgewood, but Louisville may act sooner.

The Louisville Courier-Journal reported Tuesday that the Louisville Metro Council will give a needle-exchange ordinance its first reading at a meeting Thursday, meaning an exchange could be up and running by May.

“Our goal is that along with the actual exchanging of needles, it’s also a contact point in order to offer testing for HIV and other diseases and then offer resources within the community, whether it’s counseling or rehab or social services, housing, anything they might need,” said Dr. Sarah Moyer, interim director of Louisville Metro Public Health and Wellness.

“The needle exchange is an avenue in order to encourage good public health practices.”

For Dr. Rice Leach, he hopes a needle exchange will be part of his community’s public-health response to rampant intravenous drug use.

“We’ve got to have something going fairly soon, but I don’t have a month-month, day-day, year-year for you,” said Leach, commissioner of the Lexington-Fayette County Health Department. “But we better get something in place fairly shortly.”

Kevin Wheatley

Kevin Wheatley is a reporter for Pure Politics. He joined cn|2 in September 2014 after five years at The State Journal in Frankfort, where he covered Kentucky government and politics. You can reach him at kevin.wheatley@charter.com or 502-792-1135 and follow him on Twitter at @KWheatley_cn2.

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