CINCINNATI -- This could be the wake-up call that public health officials across Greater Cincinnati have been dreading.
The Northern Kentucky Health Department on Tuesday will release new data regarding cases of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. An alert notifying the media said:
“Regular monitoring of HIV infection data for Northern Kentucky has shown a shift in cases that is of concern to health officials.”
A spokeswoman for the health department wouldn’t say more before the Tuesday morning news conference.
But figures show the number of new cases of HIV grew in Hamilton County last year, just across the river from Northern Kentucky.
Hamilton County, in fact, had more new cases of HIV reported in the first nine months of 2017 than during the entire previous year, according to data from Hamilton County Public Health.
New cases of HIV in Hamilton County
All of 2016: 137
Through September of 2017: 139
Source: Hamilton County Public Health
While people who contracted the disease as the result of intravenous drug use represented the smallest number of new cases, they also represented the largest percentage increase.
Intravenous drug users went from representing 8.8 percent of all new HIV cases in 2016 to representing 15.8 percent of new HIV cases in the first nine months of last year.
“It’s kind of frightening out there,” said Mike Samet, public information officer for Hamilton County Public Health.
WCPO reported in 2016 that the region could be facing a $1 billion crisis if the opioid crisis spreads HIV here to the same extent it spread in the rural community of Scott County, Indiana, just two hours from Cincinnati.
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When the HIV outbreak occurred in Scott County, the community didn’t have a syringe exchange program. Scores of IV drug users in the county’s tiny city of Austin got the virus from sharing and re-using dirty needles, cotton and cookers.
But syringe exchange programs already are up and running in the Tri-State.
“The good news is the syringe exchange program is out there and operating full bore,” Samet said. “We don’t want this to be another Scott County, Indiana, by any measure.”
The Northern Kentucky Health Department has a syringe exchange program in Grant County, too. The department has not yet been able to launch a syringe exchange in other parts of the region.
Proponents of syringe exchanges argue that they’re important for people’s health and for financial reasons, too.
The lifetime cost of care for one person with HIV is roughly $400,000, Samet said.
Cincinnati’s needle exchange program costs less than that to operate for a full year, said Linda Seiter, executive director of Caracole. Northside-based Caracole provides HIV prevention and testing for the community along with affordable housing and case management for people living with HIV and AIDS.
Caracole serves 1,500 people through case management and has seen a slight increase in the number of people that report IV drug use as the source of their infections.
But managers of a Caracole housing program for homeless people with HIV have seen a troubling trend: In the last year, 38 percent of the homeless people newly referred to that program reported IV drug use as the source of their infection.
In 2015, that number was just 5 percent, Seiter said.
“That’s really alarming,” she said. “And the alarm seems to be with people who are homeless.”
Even so, Seiter hopes the syringe exchange programs in Cincinnati and Grant County can help the Greater Cincinnati region avoid the crisis that engulfed Scott County.
“I’m really hoping over time, as in other cities, the syringe exchange project will make a difference,” she said.
She also hopes more people are being forced to accept the idea that syringe exchange programs are necessary for public health.
“Almost everybody I know knows someone who has family who’s affected by the drug crisis,” she said. “We’re all being touched by the epidemic in some way.”
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address.
To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.