A study by Johns Hopkins University has found that the suspension of the syringe exchange program in West Virginia's Kanawha County "fundamentally changed the health landscape" for intravenous drug users in many negative ways.
Since the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department ended its syringe exchange in 2018, Charleston's IV drug-using population is now injecting with used syringes more frequently; it has less access to naloxone, the drug used to reverse an opioid overdose; and users are less likely to be tested for HIV in what the study now calls "a new era of increased risks for acquiring bloodborne infections and overdose," according to the study.
The study found that not only did the program's closure defy best medical practice in restricting resources to a vulnerable population, it also left those who needed them most feeling "abandoned by the community and city leadership when it closed."
"There's obviously a lot of stigma attached to drug use, and people need to be reminded these aren't just unknown people out in the community; these are somebody's sons or daughters and they all have a story," Dr. Sean Allen, the lead researcher who wrote the report, said in a phone interview with HD Media reporter Bishop Nash on Monday.
One thing to remember with the needle exchange program in Charleston, though, was that it was more of a giveaway than an exchange, and it didn't do much to remove used needles from the city. The program gave out more than 651,000 needles, but only about 415,800 were returned. Thus, more than 235,000 are unaccounted for. That's a lot of needles.
According to West Virginia Public Broadcasting, Charleston firefighters had to crawl over needles while fighting fires in abandoned buildings. An elementary school requested a biohazard container from the city so school employees could clean up an alley before children arrived at school. Police officers found large numbers of syringes on people who were arrested.
Former Charleston Mayor Danny Jones described the health department's program as a "needle mill" and said it contributed to crime. He eventually got the program shut down.
In Cabell County, the Cabell-Huntington Health Department operates a true exchange program. One result has been a marked decrease in public complaints about finding used needles. In one month this year, more needles were returned than were given out. However, Cabell County is also the location of West Virginia's only HIV cluster, which health officials say is a result of intravenous drug use.
Meanwhile, needle exchange programs are facing a rough time getting started elsewhere. The Logan County Commission voted 2-1 earlier this week to draft an ordinance prohibiting an exchange in that county.
According to an article by Logan Banner reporter Dylan Vidovich, Logan County Sheriff Sonya M. Dingess said she spoke with Cabell County Sheriff Chuck Zerkle and Kanawha County Sheriff Mike Rutherford about needle exchanges. Both advised against Logan County having one.
Logan County officials don't want their community to become a magnet for addicts and the crime that comes with a surge in that population. That's understandable, but the county already has a drug problem, and that brings health problems that can spread to nonusers.
The drug problem affects the whole community. We can't focus on one group for benefits while ignoring other stakeholders. When all things are weighed, needle exchange programs are necessary, but they must be true exchanges and must be geared toward protecting all members of the public, not just people who want needles.