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Louisville Metro Health Prepares for Needle Exchange Program

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The Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness is in the early stages of establishing a needle exchange program.

The health department has been working with community partners to determine a location, hours of operations and the type of needle to exchange with participants, said Dr. Sarah Moyer, medical director for the department.

“Getting clean needles in the hands of intravenous drug users will definitely help cut down on the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C, and then that in turn will cut down the spread to pregnant women and then reduce the risk of transmission to neonates,” she said.

This year, Kentucky lawmakers passed a bill to allowing local health departments to establish a needle exchange program. An ordinance allowing such a program must be approved by the Board of Health and Metro Council before the program is establish.

The health department has submitted an ordinance to Metro Council that will be read Thursday and considered for passage.

Moyer is confident that it will be approved.

“There’s a lot of support in the community. I think everybody’s been affected and a little bit scared by the situation going on in Indiana right now,” Moyer said.

As of Friday, more than 100 people have tested HIV positive in Scott County, Indiana, about 30 miles north of Louisville. The HIV outbreak stems from needle-sharing among intravenous drug users of the prescription painkiller, Opana.

Gov. Mike Pence recently declared a public health emergency because of the HIV outbreak, and the state began a 30-day needle exchange program April 4 to contain the spread of the virus.

Moyer said the potential for the outbreak to spread south to Louisville is a concern.

"We haven’t seen the rise in the numbers yet, but we’re looking for it. We’re trying to get things like this needle exchange set up to prevent it from happening here,” Moyer said.

Moyer said Louisville had an increase in heroin usage in recent years since the Kentucky General Assembly approved stronger regulations on the prescription of controlled substances.

Another key driver behind the uptick in heroin abuse was the reformulation of OxyContin and Opana—two widely abused prescription pain drugs—making them harder to crush and snort, according to the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy.

Moyer said heroin has far reaching effects for the community: overdose, violence, homicide, the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C, and needle sticks are all common effects of the heroin epidemic.

“Exchanging those needles is kind of a draw for that community to maybe come in and then if they’re willing to get tested for HIV or Hepatitis C. We’ll have those services available here at the health department of wherever we decide to set up the exchange,” she said.

The health department has been surveying current patients at the methadone clinic and people who are incarcerated who are IV drug users to get their input on setting up the needle exchange.

“We’re trying to gather all the information to make this as successful as possible,” she said.

In the past six months, a few people have come to the health department in search of a needle exchange program, Moyer said.

She said city officials are aiming for the needle exchange to start in June.

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