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Warren County Set to Launch Needle Exchange

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Bowling Green and Warren County are joining a growing list of communities establishing needle exchange programs. 

In 2015, the Kentucky General Assembly approved a measure allowing local governments to set up the exchanges in response to the state’s heroin epidemic.  The aim is to prevent the spread of disease such as HIV and Hepatitis. 

The Barren River District Health Department serves an eight-county region including Barren, Butler, Edmonson, Hart, Logan, Metcalfe, Simpson, and Warren Counties.  From January 2014 to April of this year, the region saw more than 600 cases of Hepatitis-C. 

Warren County's needle exchange, which begins Thursday, will allow any drug user to come to the health department and anonymously swap dirty needles for clean ones. 

In this interview, Lisa Autry spoke with Dennis Chaney, director of the Barren River District Health Department.

Autry: What evidence is there to suggest these exchanges are successful?

Chaney: Syringe exchange programs have been in place in the United States, in some parts of the country, for over 20 years.   As a result of that, those communities have seen drops in their rates of HIV and Hepatitis C.  Also, those communities have seen a decrease in exposure by consumers and law enforcement as it relates to being exposed to dirty needles.

Autry: Exchanges are designed to not just help drug users, but others who are not.  How so?

Chaney: Often times in our communities, dirty needles may find their way into parks, on the streets, on playgrounds, as so as it relates to the overall benefit to our community from that standpoint, we're minimizing the risk of exposure for all of us to the potential risk of a needle stick from a contaminated needle with some sort of blood-borne pathogen such as HIV or Hep B or Hep C.

Autry: Nineteen other Kentucky counties have established needle exchanges.  Have you learned anything from their experiences?

Chaney: One of the things we've learned is that we have to be very sensitive to the program being anonymous and we have to work in collaboration with law enforcement.  There's been a couple of counties in the commonwealth where there was, I guess, a compromise in that partnership with law enforcement and word spread within the community that the health department was going to be staked out by law enforcement, and so, that community didn't have an participation for about the first month, and so there had to be an element of trust and credibility re-established within that community.

Autry: Law enforcement has expressed concern about needle exchanges fueling drug use, or simply excusing it.  Do exchanges lead to increased IV drug use?

Chaney: There is the potential that folks may be involved in a particular program such as this one and have no intention of changing their behavior, but the fact that they're participating, getting access to clean needles, and holding themselves accountable by bringing in dirty needles is, in fact, changing a behavior. We understand there will be opportunities for folks to to have no intent to change their behaviors, and so in effect, it will be aiding and abetting, but for the greater good, looking at the program hollisticly, is that ong-term, we will see a change.

Autry: Besides preventing the spread of disease, the other goal of the exchange is to lead addicts to seek testing and treatment, right?

Chaney: If a person participating in the program doesn't know their status as it relates to HIV and Hep C, we'll offering testing there on the spot so that they can be responsible.  The last objective is taking advantage of every opportunity to motivate them to get involved in some sort of rehab in order to change their behavior and get back to they type of life they had or the type of life they'd like to have.

Lisa is a Scottsville native and WKU alum. She has worked in radio as a news reporter and anchor for 18 years. Prior to joining WKU Public Radio, she most recently worked at WHAS in Louisville and WLAC in Nashville. She has received numerous awards from the Associated Press, including Best Reporter in Kentucky. Many of her stories have been heard on NPR.
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