Needle exchange program in Cabell County starting to show benefits

Officials say a needle exchange program started in Cabell County in 2015 is starting to show benefits. The goal is to cut down the spread of HIV, Hepatitis B and C. (WCHS/WVAH)

In September 2015, the Cabell Huntington Health Department launched the needle exchange program. This program gives addicts the tools they need to get their fix. The goal is to cut down the spread of HIV, Hepatitis B and C.

Patrick Pugalee is a recovering addict who took advantage of the program.

"I've seen five to 10 people use the same needle," Pugalee said.

Pugalee's girlfriend, Cassandra Smith, said one time she was “so crazy I shot someone's blood just to get the meth that was in it."

The needle exchange program offers addicts up to 40 needles, along with distilled water, a spoon, cotton filter, tourniquet, bleach, alcohol preps, disposal containers for needles and condoms.

Health professionals with the Cabell Huntington Health Department said this kit allows people to shoot up safely and help curb the spread of diseases.

Dr. Michael Kilkinny with the health department said he is excited the program is working.

"Sharing needles less means sharing disease less,” Kilkinny said. “We're not enabling this practice. We're enabling the avoidance of disease and linking people to medical care."

Data gathered from the Cabell Huntington Health Department shows the percentage of Hepatitis B cases in Cabell County has declined from 75 percent in 2013 to 32 percent in 2017.

Kilkinny said the number of Hepatitis C cases related to drug injection dropped from seven cases in 2016 to three in 2017.

Before a drug user can get a heroin kit, they are offered treatment options, vaccinations and even access to a recovery coach. The goal is to help people eventually get clean and keep the community safe from diseases such as HIV.

The latest data available from the health department on HIV/AIDS cases shows drug use that contributed to infection has declined from 2013 to 2016. Kilkinny said last year's numbers should be out in a couple months. Kilkinny said preliminary reports show no HIV increase from shooting up drugs.

While diseases related to drug injection in Cabell County are on the decline, the death rate is up.

According to the Huntington Mayor's Office off Drug Control Policy, in 2015, 24 people died from an overdose. The next year, that number dropped to 14. But, in the first half of 2017, the data showed a spike -- 58 people died from overdoses.

Kilkinny said it will take time to see the full results.

"We can't see positive change overnight, and won't see positive change for a long time. We're on the cusp of amazing statistical improvements,” Kilkinny said.

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