The Middletown Board of Health has green-lighted a new program that includes a needle exchange service.
“The focus is on prevention,” Jackie Phillips, the city’s health commissioner, said of the blood-borne infectious disease program approved earlier this month. “This is not condoning their behavior, but we need to be concerned about the health of the whole city.”
The program is being implemented after the city health board declared a health emergency on Nov. 10 to prevent various blood-borne infectious diseases, such as HIV and hepatitis C.
Cincinnati also operates a mobile needle exchange program, which has been visiting Middletown periodically to offer testing and counseling for sexually transmitted diseases.
Middletown’s program is designed to reduce the prevalence of needle sharing as a result of the heroin epidemic.
“When you look at the heroin problem, it’s just not the person but a wide range of things that are affected…. No one is exempt from this epidemic,” Phillips said.
For the first six months of the year, there were 28 heroin-related deaths in the city, according to Phillips. As of Monday, she said there have been 42 overdose deaths. She said there were 55 heroin-related deaths in the city in 2014.
Countywide, there were 85 heroin-related deaths the first six months this year, up from 56 during the same time in 2014, said Martin Schneider, an administrator for the Butler County Coroner’s Office. There were 103 deaths in 2014, he said. At the current rate, there would be 170 this year, an increase of 65 percent.
City Manager Doug Adkins said he will approach City Council to gauge their willingness to move forward with the program.
“Assuming we move forward with this project, we will need to find the best location and timing within the city,” he said.
The program is estimated to cost between $42,000 and $45,000 per year to operate, and the city will seek out grants and other funding resources to cover the costs.
Adkins, who convened Heroin Summit meetings throughout 2015 in an effort to combat the drug’s impact on the city, said he fully supports the needle exchange program.
“The syringe program not only reduces the transmission of these types of diseases, but it also turns the syringe into a commodity that has value. People are less likely to leave syringes in public places when they can exchange them for a clean syringe,” Adkins said.
In addition to providing clean needles, Phillips said the mobile van will go into various neighborhoods to encourage people to seek out testing and treatment for HIV and hepatitis C.
She said hepatitis C infections are rising in Middletown with 100 cases reported in 2013; 146 cases reported in 2014; and through October 2015, there have been 174 cases reported. According to the health board, the cost to provide lifetime care for individuals with chronic infections such as HIV and hepatitis C has been shown to be in excess of $300,000.
Phillips said the proposed plan is to have the mobile van in a location to provide services for four hours a week.
“Also, this would not be an unending approval,” Adkins said of the program. “When conditions improve and the public health and safety need is diminished, we would discontinue this project at some future point.”
Cincinnati’s program has served more than 500 people and has exchanged more than 50,000 needles since it started in 2014, according to Phillips.
As part of Cincinnati’s program, staff also canvasses neighborhoods to direct people on where to get help and other treatment resources.
“In the Cincinnati exchange project, the staff builds up a relationship with clients and create a bridge that shows you care but are not condoning,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to target resources when they are ready.”
The program requires a person seeking help to complete a five-page survey, which allows the agency to collect data as well perform a mental illness check. After it’s determined that intervention is appropriate, the client is then issued a card with a unique identifier and can get a sterile syringe for dirty syringe. In addition, the staff can provide injection education and education how to prevent STDs.