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Four Months In, Louisville's Needle Exchange Has Served More Than 800

WFPL Staff

It's been four months since Louisville Metro government started a needle exchange program in response to a growing heroin epidemic that brought with it the potential to spread infectious diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis C.

Wayne Crabtree, who oversees the program, said since its opening June 10, more than 800 people have visited the exchange and more than 50 people have been referred to drug treatment.

"This is a public health intervention that works in a population that definitely does not want to be found," he told WFPL News. "They come to us. So we can intervene much quicker for any public health issues that may be uncovered when they come to our unit."

Dr. Sarah Moyer, interim director of the Metro Health Department, is scheduled to present a progress report on the needle exchange program to the Metro Council’s Intergovernmental Affairs Committee on Thursday afternoon.

Louisville was the first city in Kentucky to start a needle exchange program. Last month, an exchange began at the Lexington-Fayette County Health Department.

In March, Gov. Steve Beshear signed the state's heroin bill into law, which included provisions for health departments to begin needle exchange programs in response to the commonwealth's heroin epidemic. The Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy reported 1,087 overdose deaths in 2014 compared with 1,010 in 2013. Jefferson County had the most overdose deaths of any county last year with 204.

Thirty miles from Louisville in Scott County, Ind., a public health emergency exploded late last year because of an HIV outbreak related to intravenous drug use. That state began a needle exchange program there to contain the virus after more than 180 people tested HIV-positive in the rural county.

Crabtree said of those who have visited the needle exchange in Louisville: 75 percent use heroin; 11 percent use methamphetamine; and 7 percent use some other opioid.

He also said 35 percent are employed; the mean age is 34; nine in 10 are white; 65 percent are men; and 35 percent are women.

Crabtree said the department considers the needle exchange program to be a success, but he still sees opportunities to expand throughout the city. Right now, there is only one exchange, outside the health department downtown.

"Some of the folks can't make it to our site, so if we have enough outreach sites to where they can get the services that they need, the syringes that they need, so they will quit sharing," he said.