A year after it began, Lexington’s needle-exchange program has collected 20,199 used needles and has given out more than 21,693 clean ones.
The program, the second of its kind in Kentucky after Louisville’s, has seen a steady increase in the number of intravenous drug users looking for a safe way to get clean needles since the program started Sept. 4, 2015, said Dr. Kraig Humbaugh, commissioner of health for the Lexington-Fayette County Health Department.
Last Friday the exchange served 76 people, “which was a record,” Humbaugh said.
The program is not quite a 1:1 — one dirty needle in exchange for a clean needle. But it’s close at about .93 to 1, Humbaugh said.
Humbaugh gave Lexington’s Urban County Council an update on the program at a council work session Tuesday. A 2015 state law allows local governments to create needle exchange programs.
The exchange is open only for a few hours on Friday afternoons. Yet it has served 376 people over the year, Humbaugh said. The vast majority of people who use the exchange are male and are between 26 and 43 years old. Approximately two-thirds are from Fayette County. The remaining one-third come from adjoining counties.
Six people also received referrals for drug treatment since April, health officials said.
In addition, people are offered rapid testing for HIV.
The program is designed to reduce the spread of HIV and hepatitis. Kentucky has one of the nation’s highest per capita rates for hepatitis C, an infectious disease that primarily affects the liver. As of June 30, 2015, 900 people have been identified as being HIV positive in Fayette County.
“Kentucky has ranked number one in acute hepatitis C cases,” Humbaugh said. That’s likely because of the high number of intravenous drug users in Kentucky, he said.
If the program prevents one hepatitis C infection or one HIV infection, it will pay for itself, Humbaugh told the council. The program costs a little less than $50,000 a year to run. The average cost of treating one case of hepatitis C is between $32,000 and $56,000, he said. Estimated average cost for a lifetime of HIV treatment is $379,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
About 50 kits of Narcan, an opiate overdose-reversing drug, have also been distributed at the needle exchange through a partnership with the University of Kentucky, which received a grant to buy the kits.
Humbaugh said they also want to add rapid hepatitis C testing in October. They have applied for a grant to pay for the testing. A work group is also looking at plans to expand the needle exchange program, such as expanding the hours or having a second satellite location.
Many on council applauded the program during Tuesday’s work session. Others questioned how some of the data was gathered. No one spoke against the program during Tuesday’s meeting.
Heroin use has exploded in many areas of Kentucky, including Lexington. Overdoses from heroin or a combination of heroin and Fentanyl, a powerful pain killer, continue to climb. In the past month, opiate overdoses have claimed 36 lives in Kentucky, 200 in Cincinnati and 27 in Huntington W.Va., according to multiple media reports.
In Lexington, there were 43 heroin-related deaths from Jan. 1 to Aug. 10. During that same time period there were 95 total overdose deaths, according to Fayette County Coroner statistics. In 2011, only five deaths were heroin-related overdoses. In 2015, the number had grown to 55.
Lexington police are in the process of issuing Narcan to its officers this week. Lexington Fire Department has seen a steady increase in its use of Narcan over the last four years. In 2015, Narcan was used on average 107 times a month. This year, the average has climbed to 149 uses a month.
Fayette County Needle Exchange Program
Where: 650 Newtown Pike
When: 1:30-4 p.m. every Friday