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Health and Welfare

Hepatitis Continues To Plague Eastern Kentucky

Flickr, Creative Commons

Needle exchange programs were first created 30 years ago, in response to the AIDS epidemic.  Infected needles were often passed from drug abuser to drug abuser, spreading the deadly disease.  By providing sterile needles, public health officials reduced the number of infections.  Still, needle exchange programs remain controversial and under debate in Frankfort and Washington DC.

Instead of needle exchange, the term heard most often today is ‘syringe service program.’  Kentucky law prohibits syringe possession without a prescription.  But, University of Kentucky epidemiologist Jennifer Havens would like to see a change in the law.  Havens believes syringe exchanges do not increase drug abuse.

“I don’t think anyone walking by the program, the syringe service program, is going to say, `I’m gog to start doing drugs today because there’s a syringe service program.’  All it does is allow folks who are already injecting a safer way, a safer source of syringes and potentially program that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to access,” said Havens.

A study into 500 Appalachia drug abusers shows nearly two-thirds were infected with hepatitis.  Besides reducing a public health threat, Havens says syringe exchanges can also draw abusers into drug treatment.  The Associate Professor in Behavioral Science also wants a restoration of federal funding for needle exchanges.   Without federal help, Havens says many communities in eastern Kentucky couldn’t afford such programs.

“In talking to a lot of the leaders in eastern Kentucky, I haven’t necessarily approached this issue in particular, but they are at their breaking point with regard to what do we do about this epidemic, so I think, actually at the end of the day, a syringe service program would probably be fairly welcome,” added Havens.

Havens says syringe exchanges can also bring abusers into drug treatment programs. 

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