While public officials may be concerned about running a needle exchange program as was reported recently, we think it would be fiscally prudent for the state health department to figure out how such a service can be extended to even more people in need, to all reaches of West Virginia.
Simply ignoring the problem will not make it go away.
Yes, we, too, are tiring of dealing with a drug epidemic that seems to know no end, witnessing the price — real and emotional — to family and community. Likewise, we are especially frustrated with those whose lives have been squeezed by the unrelenting grip of opioids to the point that they feel the overwhelming need to inject drugs directly into their veins — and then casually discard used needles where they are a threat to the public.
It would be easy — and mistaken — to treat those who have a weakness as criminals and not as patients in need to medical attention and care.
Theirs is a terrible world.
They are suffering from a disease and our basic humanity requires that we respond with compassion and care. To expect them to feel any sense of social responsibility, to distinguish between right and wrong while under the influence of their opioid of choice, is ignoring the potency of the drugs coursing through their veins and warping rational thinking. They are not in control.
We cannot ignore the reality in our own backyard.
In June 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta released a list of 220 at-risk counties for an HIV and hepatitis C outbreak.
Twenty-eight of West Virginia’s 55 counties were on the list — including Kanawha, Raleigh, Fayette, Nicholas, Monroe, Summers and Wyoming.
That’s our home territory under siege — and that report came two years ago.
We should be ashamed that it has taken this long to start putting together a local program.
Why the urgency of a needle exchange program?
Why expand the effort?
Since 2010, the CDC says the U.S. has seen a three-fold increase in hepatitis C infections, primarily in white adults under the age of 40 – with a high concentration right here at home in Appalachia.
And the growing number of hepatitis C infections is largely due to injection drug use. In 2014, there were 41,200 new hepatitis C infections in the U.S. – 80 percent of which were related to drug use.
In a recent webcast, officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta noted that 20 percent of people ages 15 to 29 with hepatitis C live within 10 miles of a syringe service program. Rephrased, 80 percent do not.
The CDC said access to safe injection equipment and treatment for drug addiction can lower transmission risks by more than 70 percent.
A sensible needle exchange program, in addition to swapping sterile syringes for contaminated ones, will also provide a range of public health services, including referral to substance abuse treatment.
And finally, there is this: To treat Hepatitis C, it costs $25,000 to $30,000 per person. To treat HIV patients? Hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Needles? Not so much.