The practice among drug addicts of sharing used needles is blamed for an HIV outbreak in rural Indiana and has put much of the Tri-State at risk, the CDC says.

Nearly half of Northern Kentucky HIV infections in 2017 came from injection drug use

May lead to new push for needle exchange programs

EDGEWOOD, Ky. -- State and local public health officials on Tuesday reported a sharp increase in the number of Northern Kentucky residents who were diagnosed with HIV in 2017 after having injected drugs.

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There were 37 new cases of HIV reported last year in Boone, Campbell, Grant and Kenton counties, a number higher than in 2015 or 2016.

RELATED: Hamilton County heroin use was up in 2017.

But the more alarming change for public health officials is that 18 of those new cases were reported by people who injected drugs. That’s more than three times the number of HIV cases linked to injection drug use than the region typically sees.

Further analysis has found those 18 people all live in Campbell and Kenton counties, neither of which has any syringe exchange programs that advocates argue are critical to slowing the spread of infectious disease among IV drug users.

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“Every locality that has implemented a syringe access exchange program has reduced HIV and hepatitis C,” said Garren Colvin, president and CEO of St. Elizabeth Healthcare, who spoke at Tuesday’s news conference.

“I think we need to get our elected officials to put the health of their communities at the forefront of their decisions.”

The Northern Kentucky Health Department operates a syringe exchange program in Grant County and has been trying to launch similar programs in Boone, Campbell and Kenton counties.

This chart helps show why public health officials are concerned.

Kenton County and the city of Covington have agreed to allow a mobile exchange program, but only after another community in the health department’s service area approves one, too.

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Campbell County has agreed to a program, but no city within the county has granted approval.

Dr. Lynne Saddler, the Northern Kentucky Health Department district director, said Boone County and Florence officials have heard presentations on the program but have not cast votes.

“To some, the numbers may seem small,” Saddler said. “But I want you to focus on the fact that these numbers show a trend that we need to attempt to reverse.”

State health officials are continuing to investigate the Northern Kentucky infections to determine whether they are connected to each other, said Dr. Jonathan Ballard, state public health epidemiologist for the Kentucky Department for Health.

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If they are connected, the cases could be deemed an outbreak.

Hamilton County cases increased, too

Northern Kentucky is not alone in its concerns.

Hamilton County Public Health on Tuesday also reported an increase in the number of new HIV infection cases in 2017.

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There were 184 newly diagnosed cases of the virus that causes AIDS in Hamilton County last year as compared to 137 newly diagnosed cases of HIV in 2016.

That’s a 34 percent increase.

But even more concerning is the large percentage increase among the people who were diagnosed who told health officials that they use injection drugs. That figure went from nine percent in 2016 to nearly 20 percent last year, according to Hamilton County Public Health data.

Hamilton County also saw a disproportionate impact on young people. More than 60 percent of the new cases occurred in people between the ages of 15 and 34, with the largest increase among people between the ages of 15 to 24.

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WCPO reported in 2016 that the region could be facing a $1 billion crisis if the opioid crisis spreads HIV here to the same extent it spread in the rural community of Scott County, Indiana, just two hours from Cincinnati.

RELATED: HIV: Our billion-dollar time bomb

Local public health officials argue that syringe exchange programs are critical to ensuring that doesn’t happen.

“This is exactly why we have moved the Bloodborne Infectious Disease Prevention Program under public health,” Hamilton County Health Commissioner Tim Ingram said in a news release. “It’s crucial that we put all the resources we have available to us in public health toward getting in front of this disease by providing testing services, clean equipment and most important, referral to treatment for those fighting the disease of addiction.”

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A diagnosis of HIV is not the death sentence it once was.

Saddler noted that people who get diagnosed and receive proper medical care can live long, productive lives and are not a danger to others.

But the cost of treatment is high. Hamilton County Public Health reported that the lifetime cost for treating a person infected with HIV can reach nearly $400,000.

Employers are bearing the brunt on those costs in Kentucky, Colvin said, which means reducing the spread of HIV would make the state a more attractive place to do business.

“We do not want to give the impression of widespread community risk for HIV in Northern Kentucky,” Dr. Jeffrey Howard, the acting commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Health, said Tuesday.

“But we also want the public to know that the overall health of our communities depends on the health of all its citizens.”

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address.

To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

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