HIV cases among N.Ky. drug users jump, sparking fear of an outbreak; health officials renew calls for syringe exchanges

Health officials in Northern Kentucky have renewed their cry for syringe exchanges following a huge surge in cases of the human immunodeficiency virus among intravenous drug users in Kenton and Campbell counties.

"HIV cases were up nearly 50 percent to 37 in 2017; the HIV cases among drug users rose 260 percent to 18," reports Terry DeMio, who covers drug abuse for the Cincinnati Enquirer.

The 50 percent increase in the two counties was mirrored across the Ohio River, where Hamilton County, which includes Cincinnati, reported a 50 percent jump in HIV cases.

Local health officials asked the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to determine whether the increase amounted to an outbreak of HIV, like those they and the CDC have predicted. One expert says an outbreak in Appalachian Kentucky is only a matter of time.

Dr. Jeffrey Howard, Kentucky's acting health commissioner, told Terry DeMio of the Cincinnati Enquirer, "We do not want to give the impression of widespread community risk for HIV in Northern Kentucky." However, local officials and advocates were not so sanguine.

Dr. Lynne Saddler, director of the Northern Kentucky Health Department, "cautioned that 2017's rise in reported cases may only be the tip of the iceberg, since many people aren't tested for HIV and injection drug users generally don't the proper health care," the Enquirer reports. "Kimberly Wright, leader of the private Facebook group Kentucky Parents Against Heroin, said the threat isn't just to injection drug users or health and safety workers."

"We're all at risk now," Wright told DeMio. "Here's the thing I think people don't get about users: We have males and females who are prostituting out here. …You know, we have strip clubs where these girls are going to dance to earn their money. We have married men going into these places that are leaving with them."

Advocates and health officials redoubled their calls for syringe exchanges where IV drug users can get clean needles, preventing the spread of infection and providing an opportunities to recruit them into treatment. Local officials, feeling political pressure from both sides, have dithered.

"Kenton County commissioners have approved an exchange there, but Covington has resisted unless a neighboring county gets an exchange, too," DeMio notes. "Campbell County gave a thumbs up, but Newport hasn't acted on the issue."

Approval is required from the county government and the city where an exchange is placed. At a news conference, advocates and heath officials turned up the heat on politicians.

"We must act immediately," Garren Colvin, president and CEO of St. Elizabeth Hospital, said at a news conference with other health officials. "More than ever, Northern Kentucky now needs comprehensive syringe access-exchange programs."

Brent Cooper, president and CEO of the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, said "It's about lowering our collective health-care costs, improving the health of our community and attracting and retaining workers and business." The chamber "has been at the forefront of fighting the heroin epidemic for more than five years," DeMio notes.

Opponents of syringe exchanges say they enable drug use, but research has debunked that notion.

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