Former needle exchange participant shares story as Marion County looks to add program

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.-- The Marion County health director is declaring a public health emergency for hepatitis C and proposing a needle exchange program.

The programs have drawn debate across the state, but if approved, Marion County would join seven other counties in Indiana with an operating syringe exchange program.

"October 28th of last year is the last time I shot up," a 31-year old woman who asked not to be identified said.

She said she used meth and heroin for years, but Madison County's needle exchange program helped set her on the path to recovery.

"I think it did because I've always been the type to want to help people, plus I had someone that I could really trust," she said.

Supporters of the programs say it helps prevent hepatitis C and HIV transmission, and serves as a link to care for participants.

Madison County had a program for about two years until its support was stripped.

"It made things a lot harder, like I said, you have to share needles and then you end up with stuff you don't want and with the hep C going around, I don't like it, because it's way too much for the medication" the former program participant said.

The program in Madison is currently being transitioned to the control of a nonprofit organization. Madison County Health Department administrator Stephanie Grimes said while the program was running they were testing more people for the disease, but since its funding was pulled, they don't have as clear a picture of hepatitis C cases.

"It was devastating in terms of getting people in for testing and then once they were identified as a case, then getting them hooked up to primary healthcare, insurance and all the things that go along with management," Grimes said.

The hepatitis C problem is part of the reason Marion County Health Director Dr. Virginia Caine wants to start a syringe exchange program. She said there were 1,000 new cases last year with 86 percent of those related to drug use.

"We were averaging about maybe five cases of acute hepatitis C each year, and then all of a sudden shoot up to over 72 that's considered an outbreak and an epidemic with our acute hepatitis C cases," Caine said.

The Indiana State Department of Health said statewide there were 8,171 cases of chronic hepatitis C in 2016, the most recent finalized data.

ISDH said Allen, Clark, Fayette, Monroe, Scott, Tippecanoe and Wayne counties had operational syringe exchange programs. Across the state there were 4,952 registered participants in the syringe exchange programs and more than 6,000 substance abuse and mental health referrals provided since Dec. 20th, 2016.

Scott County's health department implemented its program in 2015 and says it's seen a drop in HIV and hepatitis C cases. It reports 247 hepatitis C cases in 2015 and 92 in 2016.

The Wayne County Health Department said it implemented its program in 2016. It said they have seen a slight increase in hepatitis C cases, but point to more people being tested with the program.

But not everyone supports the idea of needle exchange programs.

"So our experience has demonstrated it's not been as helpful to the process as many have hoped and a good hard look at that would indicate that there are some serious risks of proving needle exchanges in various communities," Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill said.

Hill has already expressed concerns about excessive needles in communities--needles exchanged for drugs

"We had tried to work with the General Assembly to try to suggest if you're going to have these programs available throughout the state there's some other parameters that need to be put in place to be able to provide data, to make sure it's doing what you're hoping that it was doing but that type of data and information gathering is not in place and so you've got all sorts of issues that are occurring with regard to the availability of needles that are being sanctioned by the government," Hill said.

Next, the program will be introduced to the Indianapolis City-County Council Monday, followed by public hearings over the next couple of weeks.

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