A number of towns and counties in our region have adopted needle exchange programs in recent years as a way to combat rising levels of H.I.V and hepatitis C.
Barren County, Kentucky, began its needle exchange program in March, and has so far received more than 1,300 dirty needles from intravenous drug users.
Stephanie Dickerson has seen the Barren County needle exchange progress from being an idea met with skepticism to a reality. She works in health education at the Barren River District Health Department, and is based in Barren County. She helped the department’s director and epidemiologist lobby Barren County and Glasgow city governments to approve a needle exchange.
Dickerson says the program has already done a lot to tamp down concerns some had expressed about starting a syringe exchange.
“We have gotten a lot of positive feedback, and honestly I was surprised," Dickerson said. "Because when this first started and we went before county government and city government there was a lot of pushback about this, and people were like, “Well, you’re just promoting drug use in Barren County.”
Local needle exchange programs were made possible by a bill passed during the 2015 Kentucky General Assembly. A massive outbreak of H.I.V. that year in Scott County, Indiana—just north of Louisville—prompted Kentucky lawmakers to legalize syringe exchanges. Since then, about 50 needle exchange programs have begun in the commonwealth.
Barren County’s program operates out of the county health department building in Glasgow on Thursdays from noon to 4 p.m. Dickerson says in its first ten months, the program has handed out more than 1,700 clean needles, while receiving and safely disposing of more than 1,300 dirty ones.
“The first time that they come in, whether they bring us any needles or not, they get 21 clean needles," she said. "And then after that, it’s a one-on-one. So if they bring us ten dirty needles, we give them ten clean needles.”
The needle exchange involves more than just the swapping of a dirty needle for a clean one. Dickerson said the program is one part of an overall harm reduction campaign.
“So while people are here, they are getting their clean needles, but also they’re getting counseling, options for treatments, places we can help them get into. They’re also getting free H.I.V. testing, they’re getting free hep C testing, and they can also get vaccinated for free for the hep A shot. So it’s not like they’re just in and out the door.”
Drug users from outside Barren County have come to Glasgow to use the needle exchange, including participants from Metcalfe and Russell counties.