Spike in transmittable diseases tied to needle sharing

Libby Harrison, program manager at Cincinnati Exchange Project, said the advocacy agency opened its door in January in an effort to combat the spread of HIV and hepatitis C. The agency offers drug addicts a safe place for a one-to-one exchange of used syringes for clean syringes.

“People who come to us are already drug addicts,” Harrison said. “Our goal is disease prevention and to be happy to see them to build a sense of trust for when they’re ready for treatment.”

Harrison said about 1,500 syringes have been exchanged since the organization opened. She said out of the 75 clients served, about one-fourth have come from Butler County.

Jenny Bailer, director of nursing at the Butler County Health Department, said the health department is “definitely” recording an increase in cases of HIV and hepatitis C — both spread through contact with infected blood.

“We feel it’s tied to the opiate epidemic because both (diseases) are spread by sharing dirty needles,” Bailer said.

Since 2009, the rate of new hepatitis C cases in Butler County has been on the rise. Bailer said 500 new cases of hepatitis C were reported in 2013 to the health departments covering Hamilton, Middletown and Butler County.

“The very clear trajectory of the line is a steep upward trend,” Bailer said.

Bailer said another trend in the county’s hepatitis C data is a change in the age group most affected by the disease. She said prior to 2009, most cases were found in people ages 45-54. Starting in 2010, that shifted to the majority of cases now being in the 25-34 age group.

Jackie Phillips, health commissioner in Middletown, said bringing a safe needle exchange program to Butler County has been a topic of conversation among the Middletown, Hamilton and Butler County health departments.

“Nothing’s happened yet,” Phillips said. “I am hoping something does actually happen.”

Ron Ward, a recovering meth addict who lives in Middletown, said that he contracted both HIV and hepatitis C during his years as a drug user. He said it’s been one of the hardest parts of his recovery.

Ward said a needle exchange program in Butler County would be “100 percent beneficial.”

“People don’t want a needle exchange close to home,” Ward said. “But it will reduce the number of transmitted diseases and promote a more healthy lifestyle.”

Harrison said the Cincinnati Exchange Project is holding a fundraiser event Friday with the screening of the Emmy-nominated documentary “Black Tar Heroin: Dark End of the Street.” Tickets are $15 online at www.cincyep.org, and 150 seats are available.

After the screening, one of the film’s leads, a Cincinnati native who lives in California, will address the crowd and answer questions.

“It’s intense and very honest,” Harrison said of the film.

The Cincinnati Exchange Project also provides its clients with referrals to drug treatment and mental health services; free rapid HIV and hepatitis C testing; safe sex and injection education; and prescriptions for Narcan, a drug to reverse the effects of a drug overdose.

“It’s not just the addict we’re worried about, we’re worried about the community as a whole,” Harrison said.

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