HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — The state Department of Health and Human Resources is putting $20,000 into a syringe exchange program in Huntington and Cabell County with a first-of-its-kind pilot project for West Virginia that could be up and running by Oct. 1.
It’s a step that’s being taken to address what many health officials in the Mountain State have called a drug epidemic.
“What we will learn in Huntington will help every county in the state,” pledged Huntington Mayor Steve Williams.
On Thursday, DHHR officials joined Williams, other Huntington and Cabell County officials along with those with the Cabell-Huntington Health Department to announce the funding.
It includes $10,000 for the program itself and $10,000 in technical support for the syringe exchanges, or SEP, designed to reduce illnesses and infections like hepatitis B, hepatitis C and HIV that are spread through intravenous drug use.
Making clean needles more readily available, officials said, was about “harm reduction.”
Additionally, the one-year pilot program will include education and treatment resources by giving addicts points of contact within the Cabell-Huntington Health Department. Coordination with state officials will also be part of the effort.
“We look forward to a thorough evaluation that will help guide other communities looking for a similar evidence-based approach,” said Dr. Rahul Gupta, the state’s chief health officer and commissioner for the West Virginia Bureau for Public Health.
A recent study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found hepatitis C cases across four Appalachian states — West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia — more than tripled between 2006 and 2012.
In 2012, West Virginia had the second highest rate of hepatitis C in the entire country, according to the CDC.
Early in the pilot program process, Williams is optimistic.
“The advantage of a having pilot program at the community level in Huntington is that, if there’s a problem, we’ll find out sooner,” he said. “I’m not fearful of failure. I’d be fearful if we weren’t doing anything.”
Already this year, more than 200 drug overdoses have been reported in Cabell County and many of those overdoses have involved heroin. Overdoses have killed at least two dozen people, city and county officials had said.
“The one aspect that I can point to that I am so proud of is how Huntington hasn’t just wallowed in self-pity. We have all aspects of the community that are stepping forward and saying, ‘We have a role to play,'” Williams told MetroNews.
“Our culture and our DNA says, if there’s someone in trouble, we reach out.”