The public will be able to learn more details about a proposed needle exchange program in Whitley County Monday afternoon during a joint meeting of the Whitley County UNITE Coalition and the Whitley County Health Department.
The meeting will be held at 2:30 p.m. in the basement conference room of the Whitley County Health Department, which is located off Penny Lane in Williamsburg.
The guest speaker will be Greg Lee, who is with the Cabinet for Health and Family, who will be discussing the Hepatitis and HIV epidemics and how they relate to drug use and the proposed needle exchange program.
Whitley County Health Department Public Health Director Martha Steele said the fact that Kentucky is number one in Hepatitis C infections in the nation is just part of the reason the board of health recently decided it was time to establish a needle exchange program in Whitley County.
“Now we have to test all pregnant moms for Hepatitis C. We are getting babies coming in that are Hepatitis C positive at birth,” Steele noted.
Much of the time the Hepatitis C is spread through IV drug users.
Steele said that when someone shoots up drugs, statistics show there are typically six people at that location shooting up drugs all typically using the same needle and all being exposed to the same diseases.
“It is just becoming a public health crisis. Hepatitis C is now curable but it costs close to $85,000 for one treatment,” Steele said. “With the number of people now using IV drugs, it will be the downfall of healthcare. IV drug use is now a public health crisis.”
The program is a joint effort between the health department and the Whitley County UNITE Coalition.
“One of the main objectives of the Whitley County UNITE Coalition is education,” said Whitley County UNITE Coalition Coordinator Amber Owens.
“This isn’t drug education in the common sense of the word, but it is something we think people should be aware of. It is a growing problem. HIV and Hepatitis are coming into the community. It is something people need to be aware of.”
Owens added that the spread of Hepatitis is a problem that can’t be ignored any longer.
Several steps remain
Whitley County officials are still in the early stages of establishing a needle exchange program with several questions that still have to be answered before such a program can be fully implemented.
For instance, the Whitley County Fiscal Court, Williamsburg City Council and Corbin City Commission all must still approve the needle exchange program before it can be established.
Steele said that the approval of the Whitley County Board of Health, which is the board that oversees the health department, was contingent on funding becoming available for the program.
Steele said that public health directors in Kentucky have been assured that federal funds will be made available at some point in the not too distant future to establish needle exchange programs.
“We have not received it yet and we don’t know how much, but there is supposed to be federal funding that is going to become available,” she added.
Steele said the goal of the program is to eventually have a one on one ratio, where they give out one clean needle for every used needle turned in to the program.
However, she said previous efforts in other communities have shown that at first the ratio of clean needles going out will be much higher than dirty needles being returned.
“You start requiring one or two needles. You have to build up trust with these people,” Steele said. “Initially we are going to have to take baby steps. The goal is to eventually have a one on one exchange.”
One requirement of those participating in the program will be that they have drug and alcohol counselors, Steele added.
Those attending Monday’s meeting can park in the back of the health department and enter through the rear entrance in the basement.