Pubdate: Sat, 11 Jul 2015
Source: State Journal, The (WV)
Copyright: 2015 The State Journal
Author: Mandi Cardosi


There are nearly 2,000 people in the Mountain State living with

Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the
West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources showed, back in
April, the state has the highest rates of Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C
cases in the country.

In 2012, the Hep C rate was reported at 3.1 cases per 100,000 people,
compared with 0.7 cases per 100,000 nationally.

In 2013, Hep B rates were reported at 10.6 per 100,000 people,
compared with the national rate of 0.9 cases per 100,000 people.

The rate of prescription drug deaths in West Virginia is the highest
in the country. Heroin-related deaths have also doubled since 2010.

Possible outbreak

In May, the CDC warned of increases in Hep C virus infections related
to injection drug use in four states. A report showed the increase to
be most common in people age 30 and older.

The study explained Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia
reported cases of serious Hep C infections to have increased more than
three times the amount from 2006 to 2012. About 50 percent of those
cases occurred in individuals age 30 and younger.

According to the CDC, there were a total of 1,377 cases of acute Hep C
infections reported in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.

 From 2006 to 2012, a significant increase occurred in the incidence of
acute Hep C infection among young persons in both non-urban and urban
counties in the four states. However, in each year, the incidence was
more than twice the rate among people who resided in non-urban areas
compared with urban areas, the CDC found.

At the beginning of July, the DHHR, Cabell-Huntington Health
Department and Huntington city officials decided enough was enough.
The city, along with its partners, started a needle exchange program.
The city of 50,000 is set to be the guinea pig for such programs that
could begin popping up all over the state.

"We have to provide the assistance and support needed," said Dr. Rahul
Gupta, state health officer and commissioner for the Bureau for Public
Health. "As opposed to blindly investigating, we're looking where the
challenge is the most. And (Huntington) is willing and able to

Gupta said after the announcement of the needle program health
officials need to make sure they're not overlooking outbreaks, while
trying to address the relevance of IV drug use.

"We are doing county-by-county data," Gupta said. "It is reaching
rural areas, there's a shift from pure prescription to heroin and IV
drug use. We're trying to be proactive."

On the ground

Huntington Mayor Steve Williams said he is no stranger to asking for

"It became apparent to me we needed to have people talking to one
another," he said. "West Virginia is a very centralized state in terms
of decision making; it had to come out of the governor's office."

Williams said the coalition with DHHR and Cabell-Huntington Health
Department is an immediate opportunity to save lives.

"(The effort is) not only to reduce infection but most importantly
it's a portal to recovery," he said.

Just as communities have pantries, provide lunches and meals to
individuals, Williams said Huntington is ready and willing to do
"what's necessary to become a clinic" to allow for the possibility of
someone looking for help.

With the help of a $10,000 grant, medical schools, hospitals and money
coming in from health agencies, Williams said anyone who seeks to
focus only on the syringe program is missing the bigger picture.

"I want to identify sooner what doesn't work, and be prepared to react
immediately," he said. "I want us to be a laboratory to determine what
can and cannot work within the state."

Williams said there's no reason challenges can't be overcome in a
city, like Huntington, or a rural part of the state, because it's all
about community - and West Virginians are always part of a community.

"Let's set examples for others to follow, that we're being bold in our
action," Williams said. "That will encourage people to be bold on
other things. This is so important because this is the one thing that
is holding us back."

Williams said the state tends to come together best when help is
needed the most.

"We have things in common and we are determining how we can unite
together," he added.

The one-year pilot project is expected to launch by late summer or
early fall.

Other states

Several months ago in Indiana, health officials said 142 individuals
had tested positive for HIV, while 136 of the cases had been
confirmed. That is up from 72 HIV cases last month and 26 confirmed
infections in February. Almost all infected individuals either live in
or have ties to Scott County. At least five of the individuals lived
in neighboring Jackson County. According to the CDC data, patients in
Indiana ranged in age from 18 to 57.

Gupta warned West Virginia could be seeing an outbreak similar to the
Hoosier State. He said with the needle exchange program, state health
officials may find more cases.

"It's better to have that case finding and limit outbreaks than to not
know if that disease exists as much as we think it does in community,"
Gupta said. "Whether (overdose deaths) are high is less relevant
because of the use of IV drugs, we know it's going to result in more
cases if we don't get a handle on it."

U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., said she supports what
Huntington is doing with the needle sharing program.

"I think you see Huntington has a real problem with overdose and
infections resulting from used needles," she said. "(The program) will
bring that person, that drug user, into the health care system."

Capito said her hope is like many others - that drug users will get
help by being around someone who can point them in the right direction
and get their lives back on track. She said she also worked to make
state dollars available for funding, because there is a ban on using
federal dollars for a program like the one started in Cabell County.

"It's costly to everyone, and I support what they're doing in
Huntington, it has a real problem," she added.

Delegate Matthew Rohrbach, R-Cabell, also has been an advocate for
helping with the city's drug problem. He was on hand as Huntington
officials discussed the dire need for a program like the needle
exchange in the area.

"We, as fellow West Virginians, care about these people and want to
get them treatment," he said. "We're going to identify people, get
them plugged into the system and get them treated; we are going to
make this program a success."
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