Taylor residents using area needle exchange programs

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Adair County reports 59.4 percent of program users are from Taylor County

By Zac Oakes


Four counties within the Lake Cumberland Health District operate syringe exchange programs, and while Taylor County does not operate a program, that has not stopped local residents from traveling to nearby counties to participate in the programs.

Statistics from the Lake Cumberland District Health Department show that Taylor County residents make up more than half of the individuals that participated in the syringe exchange program in Adair County as 59.4 percent of visitors in Adair County through June identified as being from Taylor County (more than 100 individuals) and some traveled even further to participate in the syringe exchange program operating in Russell County, as 5 percent of visitors to the Russell County program identified as being from Taylor County.

The Lake Cumberland District Health Department Board of Directors approved a measure last year to allow local city and county governments to begin implementing syringe exchange programs. 

A syringe exchange is a program where drug abusers would go to the health department to exchange a used, “dirty” needle and receive one that is brand new. Those people could exchange needles without penalty and do so anonymously, although counseling would also be offered and recommended. Disease screenings are also provided to test for Hepatitis C and HIV, diseases commonly spread through sharing needles but that can also be transmitted in other ways.

Participants in syringe exchange programs will be offered a variety of referrals for other health and social services, including substance abuse treatment, mental health care, and other health department programs. 

Christine Weyman, medical director for the Lake Cumberland District Health Department, said the programs are much more than exchanging needles. 

 “We make a rapport with the person that nobody really wants to talk to,” she told the Commonwealth-Journal in Somerset recently. “We become almost friends. We discuss their issues, and if they want treatment to get off drugs we refer them to the right place. If they happen to be Hepatitis C or HIV-positive, which we test for, we refer them for treatment for that.”

The programs began to take place in Kentucky following the “Heroin Bill” in the 2015 Kentucky General Assembly, which provided that option for local communities as increases in heroin use and other intravenous drug use began to increase across the state of Kentucky. 

However, a recent uptick in the number of communities that provide the programs came as a United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report listed 220 counties in the United States as being the most vulnerable to an outbreak of HIV and/or Hepatitis C. 

The Kentucky Department for Public Health released information last year stating that Kentucky had the highest rate of new Hepatitis C infections in the nation.  

Taylor County was one of 54 counties in Kentucky to be listed in the report, along with nearby Green, Adair, Russell, and Casey counties. 

Around 50 syringe exchange programs are open in Kentucky, a majority of which are being operated in counties that were listed in that CDC report. 

In the Lake Cumberland District, Adair, Russell, Pulaski, and McCreary counties operate syringe exchange programs. 

Officials with the Lake Cumberland District Health Department tout the cost-effectiveness of the program. Weyman said that it actually cuts costs for taxpayers. 

“For every dollar the taxpayer spends [on a needle exchange program], we save $7,” she said. “Syringes and needles are very cheap. Treatment of HIV and Hep C is not. Treatment for Hepatitis C is now possible and it’s a cure, but it costs somewhere around $85,000. HIV costs $380,000 to $600,000 for a lifetime, plus complications.”

Officials with LCDHD also state that research has been ongoing with syringe exchange programs for years with no studies showing an increase in drug use or crime, but instead showing decreases in the number of contaminated needles found lying in public access, such as local parks, schools, parking lots, lakes, rivers, etc. 

According to the LCDHD website, extensive research on syringe exchange programs has shown that programs do not increase crime in neighborhoods in which they operate, nor do they increase drug use among existing users or encourage individuals to begin using drugs. 

The programs have, according to LCDHD, reduced the spread of blood-borne diseases such as HIV, Hepatitis B and C, and others, as well as helped people get on a path to drug treatment. 

For unduplicated clients in 2018, programs operating within the Lake Cumberland District are averaging well above 95 percent, and some even above 100 percent, collection rates, meaning participants are returning their contaminated needles to the operation site as opposed to leaving them in other various locations. 

This is one of the primary goals of syringe exchange programs, according to health officials. However, that does not mean that needles aren’t being found in public areas, and citizens are encouraged to remain vigilant and report any needles in public areas to local law enforcement, who can dispose of the needles properly. 

The other goals include preventing the spread of Hepatitis C and HIV, decreasing the cost to society for treatment of these diseases, and recommending referrals for treatment. 

Those goals are why diabetics cannot exchange their needles, according to health officials, as research shows that drug addicts, not diabetics, have a tendency to share dirty (used) needles and pass along blood-borne pathogens, according to the LCDHD website. 

The issue has come before the Taylor County Fiscal Court in 2015 and again briefly in 2017, but no vote was taken on implementing a program in either meeting.