FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: April 2, 2018
CONTACT: Kyle Murphy, 202-876-2820
AIDS United Urges the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department to Reopen their Successful Syringe Access Program
Washington, D.C. – Kanawha-Charleston Health Department’s (KCHD) syringe services program (SSP) was forced to suspend operations last week after the local police chief released a new set of prohibitive rules for the KCDH SSP. The harm reduction program at the KCHD remains open but will not offer syringe access until further notice. AIDS United is concerned that Charleston Mayor Danny Jones, City Attorney Paul Ellis, and Police Chief Steve Cooper fundamentally misunderstand how SSPs work, the evidence for their effectiveness, and established best practices, and as a result have created a campaign of misinformation that is also misleading the public. These arbitrary and non-public health-based restrictions are directly contrary to widely understood best practices among syringe programs.
The suspension of the SSP at the KCDH is detrimental to public health and will directly result in lost lives, increased rates of HIV and viral hepatitis, and increased medical costs to the state of West Virginia. West Virginia has the highest rate of death due to drug overdose in the nation. It also has the highest incidence of acute hepatitis B (HBV) infection, and the second highest rate of hepatitis C (HCV) infection in the United States. Since 2010, the incidence of acute HBV and HCV increased 213% and 209%, respectively. Additionally, the WV DHHR has identified that as of 2016, 169 cases of HIV have been attributed to injection drug use in West Virginia.
The KCHD program was one of the 62 organizations awarded a Syringe Access Fund (SAF) grant in its most recent round of funding. An external review committee comprised of 20 HIV experts identified the KCHD SSP as essential to addressing the increased rates of viral hepatitis and HIV in West Virginia. The program operates 5 hours a week and serves more than 400 clients from 192 zip codes each week. In addition to disposal and distribution of syringes, the program offers HIV testing and counseling, risk reduction education, long acting reversible contraception to reduce incidence of neonatal abstinence syndrome, referral to drug treatment and other medical and social services. Furthermore, the KCHD SSP is working to prevent opioid related deaths by educating program participants and first responders about naloxone and connecting participants to drug treatment programs and other health completion services.
Research from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), shows that SSPs are a proven and cost-effective approach for preventing transmission of HIV and viral hepatitis among people who inject drugs. They reduce the risk of “accidental sticks” to sanitation workers and police and are an excellent way to engage clients in substance use treatment programs. These programs provide access to sterile syringes at no cost, facilitate safe disposal of used syringes, and offer community education and engagement. SSPs also save lives by getting naloxone—the overdose reversal drug—to those most likely to reverse an opioid overdose. Since 2004, the Syringe Access Fund (SAF) has been providing grants to SSPs throughout the U.S. and is one of the largest funders of syringe services in the country.
We are concerned that these arbitrary new rules raise significant barriers to accessing services, with no clear public health or safety benefit. What’s more they are contrary to evidence-based harm reduction best practices and potentially violate established medical ethics. Legislating the type of syringes permitted for distribution or requiring a 1-to-1 exchange would inhibit greatly the program’s participation and thus its effectiveness and would ultimately contribute to increasing rates of HIV and viral hepatitis.
Opponents of the SSP wrongfully blame it for potential needlestick injury to law enforcement officers and drug-related crime. This is directly contrary to the long-established body of research about syringe access. In fact, these are the very issues that KCHD SSP was implemented to forestall. The Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes & Human Retrovirologypublished data showing that legal access to syringes lowers needle-stick injury to law enforcement by 66 percent. The Center for Innovative Public Policies found that crime decreased in SSP areas because participants were connected to drug treatment, housing, food pantries and other social services.
AIDS United stands in support of the KCHD SSP as an essential community service and the antidote to – not the cause of – drug-related harm experienced by Charleston. AIDS United also stands ready to provide technical assistance and training to the Kanawha-Charleston leadership or public to help better understand harm reduction and the concerns raised by the closure of the program. We applaud the KCHD staff and volunteers and thank them for their strength under intense public scrutiny and controversy.
AIDS United’s mission is to end the AIDS epidemic in the U.S. through strategic grant-making, capacity building, formative research and policy. AIDS United works to ensure access to life-saving HIV/AIDS care and prevention services and to advance sound HIV/AIDS-related policy for U.S. populations and communities most impacted by the epidemic. To date, our strategic grant-making initiatives have directly funded more than $104 million to local communities and have leveraged more than $117 million in additional investments for programs that include, but are not limited to HIV prevention, access to care, capacity building, harm reduction and advocacy. www.aidsunited.org.