Hamilton may consider van to deter spread of disease from needles

Butler County’s largest city, and the one with most drug-overdose deaths in recent years, may consider joining Middletown and Fairfield in offering a van where heroin addicts can turn in used needles for clean ones.

But Mayor Pat Moeller told the Journal-News the van might not include some key services such vans offer, such as the exchange of needles or distributing of condoms as ways to curtail the spread of diseases that have accompanied the opioid-addiction crisis in recent years.

Two health experts familiar with the van used by Middletown since last year say without the distribution of clean needles, the program probably would not succeed. Middletown since last year has used a van owned by Hamilton County Public Health, and Fairfield plans to use the vehicle starting this spring.

From 2013 through 2017 — the most recent data available — Butler County had 971 overdose deaths. Leading the county with those deaths was Hamilton, which lost 292 residents; followed by Middletown, with 235; Fairfield, 73; West Chester, 45; Fairfield Township, 22; Trenton, 22; Monroe, 14; Oxford, 13; St. Clair Township, 12; Lemon and Ross townships with 11 each; and Hanover and Liberty townships, each with 10.

According to preliminary data from the Butler County Coroner’s Office, 63 Hamilton residents died from overdoses in 2018. Figures for other areas of the county were not yet available.

When the Journal-News recently spoke with area health officials, they praised Middletown for its actions to curb the opioid epidemic, and the rise of diseases, such as hepatitis A and sexually transmitted infections. The van was key to Middletown’s success. Butler and Franklin counties lead the state with most hepatitis A cases.

The Journal-News recently asked all seven members of Hamilton City Council their opinions on using a program similar to Hamilton County’s van to deter diseases. Only Mayor Pat Moeller has responded to the email.

“I would like to discuss the van matter with city administration, listen to the views of my fellow City Council members in an appropriate venue or venues, and seek the opinion of our Advisory Board of Health,” Moeller wrote.

The van helps with bloodbourne diseases and related problems by giving people clean needles in exchange for used ones. It also distributes condoms, underwear and other clothing, and makes referrals to drug rehab, food pantries and other services.

“Personally,” Moeller wrote, “at this very early stage of my consideration, I could see a benefit of a van capable of distributing donated clothing; making drug rehab, food pantry, and clinic referrals; and, as important, helping individuals be able to more easily secure his or her birth certificate and proof of Social Security Number so as to be able to get an Ohio state identification card.”

He did not mention exchange of used needles for clean ones, or condoms.

Asked about those services in an interview, Moeller said: “I need to learn more.”

“Those areas I know have been controversial, but I want to know what works, and what might work in Hamilton,” he said.

Middletown Health Commissioner Jackie Phillips said if the van were not distributing clean needles and condoms — especially the needles — the program would be “probably not effective.”

“Condoms, they probably can find them other places,” Phillips said.

“The majority of people who visit the unit probably are getting syringes,” she said. “If we did not give syringes, they wouldn’t visit the van, I think.”

Hamilton County Health Commissioner Tim Ingram agreed.

“I don’t think you could do a comprehensive bloodbourne-infection prevention program, to prevent cases of HIV and hepatitis with people who are using injectable drugs, and not give them the opportunity to take dirty needles off the street, which are hazardous to children and first responders and the rest of us,” Ingram said.

The van also provides the life-saving drug Narcan, which can revive people from overdoses, and gets people into treatment “at that time they say ‘I’m ready for treatment,’” Ingram said.

One man recently posted on Facebook photos of a handful of needles he found in Hamilton’s Lindenwald neighborhood.

“I don’t understand why there would be a program operating that wouldn’t at least have the ability to take dirty needles off the street and dispose of them in a sanitary way,” Ingram said.

His agency also serves four communities across Hamilton County, with a fifth on the way soon.

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