LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - More communities are embracing the idea of needle exchanges. It's controversial because some fear it promotes drug use but, health leaders say it combats outbreaks of hepatitis and HIV.
Since June 2015, Louisville Metro Public Health and Wellness says they have served more than 15,000 people. The number they say is reflective of what we are seeing with the opioid epidemic in the community. People who use injection drugs turn in their used or "dirty" needles in exchange for unused, clean needles. The health department says it decreases the transmission rates of HIV, Hepatitis C and other blood borne diseases.
"Our initial goal was with starting the program was prevention of disease," medical director for Metro Public Health and Wellness, Dr. Lori Caloia said. "We say with Austin, Indiana that huge numbers of people can be infected quickly with HIV, Hep C if they are sharing needles. Providing those clean syringes and needles for people helped us to keep our numbers from ballooning to what they could be."
The latest statistics from the health department show the age group that is mainly coming through the door for the needle exchange program in Louisville is people ages 30 to 39. The health department say the majority are men and the drug more commonly used is heroin, and they are using drugs five or more times a day.
In some communities, a needle exchange program is temporary. In Metro Louisville, the health department's medical director says it's a priority.
"I don't see the syringe program going away anytime soon," Dr. Caloia said. "In fact, what we are seeing across the state and across the country is more an more syringe exchanges are coming into existence because this is evidence based public health measure."
Dr Caloia said people don't come to the needle exchange looking for needles to start a new habit. The clients that walk in, have conversations with drug and alcohol counselors, and they help connect people who use drugs to treatment.
The health department says out of the 15,000 people, not all of them have gone to treatment but, they have had success in preventing diseases by providing testing for HIV and Hepatitis.
When people come to needle exchanges, health officials say syringes and needles are disposed of safely reducing the number of discarded syringes on sidewalks, yards, parks and, even playgrounds.
For more information on Metro Public Health and Wellness needle exchange program, click here.