WILLIAMSTOWN, Ky. -- Nearly half of the people who went to Grant County's needle exchange program last year visited more than once. More than half live with somebody else who also injects drugs. And more than 10 percent entered a treatment program.
Needle exchange programs aim to reduce the spread of disease among intravenous drug users, and Northern Kentucky officials say it's working in Grant County.
In addition to the other troubles of heroin addiction, Tri-State health experts fear an explosion of HIV and hepatitis C -- a nightmare-come-true in Scott County, Indiana. There, scores of intravenous drug users in the county's tiny city of Austin got HIV from sharing and re-using dirty needles, cotton and cookers. Nearly 95 percent of the infected also have hepatitis C.
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In Northern Kentucky, cases of hepatitis C rose nearly 10 percent last year, with 1,295 cases reported.
While hepatitis C is treatable, it's incredibly costly: A single course of treatment for one person can reach $80,000, according to St. Elizabeth Healthcare president and CEO Garren Colvin.
Compare that to the $27,361.40 spent operating Grant County's needle exchange since it began March 16, 2016 -- all funded through a grant from the RC Durr Foundation.
The program, which is the first of its kind in Northern Kentucky, conducted 39 tests for hepatitis C, sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy, and provided 17 vaccinations.
"The Grant County syringe exchange is a great first step while we continue to advocate for programs to also operate in Boone, Campbell and Kenton Counties so we can be more effective in controlling hepatitis C and we can prevent an outbreak of HIV among individuals, similar to the one seen in Scott County," Colvin said.
Of 130 people who visited, Northern Kentucky Health Department said it provided 59 referrals for addiction treatment. Fifteen people entered some kind of detox program. Spokeswoman Emily Gresham Wherle said referrals are mostly based on whether a person is interested and willing to seek help.
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Thomas Cox, an addiction counselor, said the hope is to help every user get into recovery. But even if some don't, Cox said at least they're better off than they'd otherwise be.
"'If I don't have this safe alternative, I'm going to do what I have to do to use' -- I mean, that’s part of the addict thinking," Cox said.
Grant County's is one of 20 needle exchange programs in Kentucky. Under state law, a local Board of Health must approve any needle exchange program, along with the city and county where the program operates.
Programs in 10 other Kentucky counties -- including one in Kenton County -- have received the necessary approvals, but they're not yet in operation.
Dr. Lynn Sadler, Northern Kentucky Health Department director, hopes Grant County's success might nudge things along.
"We have an example in our own district to show that, yes, these programs do work, they are effective and that we are very capable to operate the program," Sadler said.