The Urban County Council probably will be asked by August to approve a needle-exchange program aimed at stemming growing rates of hepatitis and HIV in Fayette County.
"We don't expect much pushback" from the council, Scott White, chairman of the Lexington-Fayette County Board of Health, said during a meeting Monday evening.
But, he said, the board and health department will need to educate the council and the public about the need for and safety of a needle-exchange program because it does involve illegal activity — drug use.
Rates of hepatitis B and C and HIV have climbed dramatically in the past three years as heroin use has skyrocketed in Lexington and across Kentucky.
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Dr. Rice Leach, the health commissioner, said the public health benefits of a needle-exchange program extend beyond intravenous users. Hepatitis C and B and HIV, the main targets of the program, also are transmitted sexually, he said. Those diseases are being spread to people who don't use drugs and further out into the community, he said.
A law passed by the state legislature in March allows Kentucky health departments and local governments to create needle-exchange programs. The health departments in Louisville and Northern Kentucky also are working on programs, Leach said.
But, he said, "it is not so much that we need to be first. We need to do this thing right."
He and his staff are working with infectious disease specialists at the University of Kentucky, people who deal with mental illness at Bluegrass.org, and law enforcement and other groups who come into regular contact with intravenous drug users to nail down specifics of the program.
Leach said the health department staff was working with the community groups to decide questions such as where the needles would be distributed and who was best suited to dispose of the dirty needles that are collected.
He said the first focus of the program would be an anonymous exchange program. But, he said, as the program matures and trust is developed between staff and those exchanging needles, the program will be able to refer people to medical and drug rehab treatment.
Chris Ford, the city's commissioner of social services, said Lexington has been actively tackling the heroin epidemic since it became evident a few years ago. That, he said, will allow Lexington and the health department to act quickly to bring something that is "inclusive and sound medically" to fruition.
"We are in a good position right now to tackle this issue that has been on our plate for more than a year," he said.