Needle exchange programs remain controversial solution in the Va - WFMJ.com News weather sports for Youngstown-Warren Ohio

Needle exchange programs remain controversial solution in the Valley

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WARREN, Ohio -

We continue to report on potential solutions to the opioid epidemic and its related side-effects.

A controversial solution used in parts of Ohio is the idea of offering clean needles to drug users. Health officials see it as a way to fight the spread of blood-borne infectious disease and possibly addiction at the same time.

“It does make a difference for the individuals that come in and faithfully come in and get clean needles,” Donna Skoda said, Summit County Health Commissioner.

The Summit County Health District is the latest county health department to start a needle exchange program in the state. The program launched in the summer of 2017.

The number of confirmed Hep. C cases in Summit County from 2012 to 2015 increased by 20-percent. When the county looked the number of confirmed, probable and suspected Hep. C cases combined from 2012, the increase in the number of cases soared by 60-percent.

Skoda says it’s an inexpensive solution to what could become a costly problem if the number of Hepatitis C and HIV cases continue to grow. She says a needle exchange program also provides an opportunity to talk face to face with an addict about going into treatment.

“Every time you come to us, it gives us an opportunity to talk to you about the harm reduction, the disease, do testing for Hep. C or HIV and also allow us to give you information and help you get into treatment,” she said.

Summit County isn’t alone. Several needle exchange programs are offered across the state, in almost every corner except in the Mahoning Valley.

Mahoning County health officials say they’re not seeing a rise in Hep. C cases and have no current plans to start a program. In Trumbull County, where drug overdoses and overdose deaths have gone up in the past several years and into 2017, the number of chronic Hepatitis C cases have seen steady growth. The number of cases has increased over the past five years with only a slight dip from 2016 to 2017.

Trumbull County health officials attribute the drug epidemic to the rising trend, but exploring a needle exchange program in Trumbull County didn't go further meetings last year with high-ranking officials across the county.

“We had stakeholders that did agree to it and wanted to have it done and then we had those who are also opposed to it,” Kathy Parrilla, who also oversees Project Dawn at the Trumbull County Health District.

Parrilla says the health commissioner was even on board with the idea and the district went as far as to draft a policy for a needle exchange program last year.

“We had several meetings with our stakeholders,” she said. “A lot of people had a problem with it in their city, they didn’t want it to look like they were the only ones that had the problem.”

Some of those not in favor of a needle exchange in Trumbull County: Prosecutor Dennis Watkins and Warren City Law Director Greg Hicks.

Watkins has publicly called the idea "absurd" and Hicks says his concern is to enforce the law, he says once the needle is used to shoot up illegal drugs, it's a chargeable offense.

In the state of Ohio, county boards of health are required to reach out to stakeholders in the community to discuss establishing a bloodborne infectious disease prevention program. After consulting with those individuals or parties, county boards of health can then decide whether or not to start a program.

Starting a program in Summit County moved forward without waiting for stakeholder support.

“If we can get them Hep. C tested, if we can get HIV testing done for them, they can find out their status, they can use the appropriate precautions to not spread the disease,” Skoda said. “If we can prevent them from getting it from somewhere else, it’s a big win.”

Since the start of the Summit Safe Syringe Program, a total of 18,514 needles have been distributed, a total of 45,76 needles have been collected and properly disposed of and 217 people have participated in the program.

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