Newport considers establishing needle exchange program to fight HIV

NEWPORT, Ky. -- Anonymous support groups, rehabilitation programs and federal initiatives to fight drug abuse are all built on a shared belief: Addiction can be temporary. With support and access to resources, people who have abused heroin, prescription medication and other substances are more than capable of breaking the habit and living entirely different lives.

HIV, an increasingly frequent byproduct of injection drug use, is forever. 

As the Tri-State works to find long-term solutions to the opioid addiction, Northern Kentucky Health Department director Lynne Saddler said she wants communities in her area to spare a thought for a problem that could outlive it: Rising rates of HIV.

READ: Editorial: New HIV cases are a wake-up call for more needle exchanges

Eighteen of 37 the new HIV infections reported in Boone, Campbell, Grant and Kenton counties throughout 2017 came from intravenous drug use, according to Saddler. The year before, all four counties reported just five new infections between them.

"To some, the numbers may seem small," Saddler acknowledged in January. "But I want you to focus on the fact that these numbers show a trend that we need to attempt to reverse."

Newport residents met with city commissioners Monday night to discuss Saddler’s proposed solution: Needle exchanges, which would allow users to trade used needles for sterilized ones.

"These programs have been around for decades, and there is plenty of research that has been done on them that shows that they are very effective at controlling the spread of diseases," Saddler said.

One commissioner noted they had received more feedback on this issue than any other in recent memory.

READ: HIV: Our billion-dollar time bomb

Grant County already offers such a program, and the World Health Organization in 2004 endorsed a needle exchange model as one that could efficiently curb the spread of transmissible diseases among drug users. So have the American Medical Association and Northern Kentucky Medical Society.

"The harm reduction data speaks for itself as far as I am concerned," Newport resident Steve Mathisen said at Monday night's meeting. "I actually would like to see it go in a place like St. Elizabeth’s."

However, some, such as Campbell County Fiscal Court Commissioner Charlie Coleman, characterize needle exchanges as a form of facilitating addiction.

"Doctors say addiction is a disease," Coleman said. "No, it's not a disease -- it's a choice, and it's a bad choice. And this is not a needle exchange. It's a needle distribution, and it's so enabling."

Barbara Boylan, a former volunteer with the Cincinnati exchange program, disagreed.

"People who use heroin are also working people," she said. "They need to have access to these programs in the evenings and during the day. They are there because they are trying to be healthy. They are actually coming because they are trying to live, not to die."

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