Needle-exchange program quietly protects public health

Fayette County's needle exchange program began Friday when, for 21/2 hours, drug users could go to the health department and exchange dirty, dangerous needles for clean ones.

There was no big fanfare, no ribbon cutting, to mark this important step in our community because anonymity is important for those bringing in needles.

But this is an important step.

Needle exchanges limit the spread of disease from sharing dirty needles. The startling rise in the incidence of hepatitis C in Kentucky — which now leads the nation in per capita cases — is directly related to drug use. HIV, the AIDS virus, is also often spread through drug use and is on the rise.

The simple and relatively inexpensive act of exchanging clean needles for dirty is an important step in battling the spread of these deadly and expensive diseases.

A recently released study of the impact of the city-funded needle exchange program in Washington, D.C., found that in its first 24 months it likely prevented 120 cases of HIV. Researchers calculated the cost of treating HIV in 120 people over their lifetimes would be $44 million.

The program at the Lexington-Fayette County Health Department, like most across the nation, also will offer free testing for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, educational materials, and referrals and counseling for those who test positive for HIV, want drug treatment or need other health and social services.

This became possible as a result of the heroin legislation passed this spring by the General Assembly, which included a provision allowing local health departments to operate exchange programs. In addition to the benefits to drug users and potential public health savings, needle exchange programs benefit the entire community by disposing safely of dirty needles.

Those needles, left as litter on playgrounds, roadsides and elsewhere can infect anyone. Police and other first responders also are at risk when they come into contact with people who might have dirty needles.

The exchange will be open each Friday from 1:30 to 4 p.m. at the health department building at 650 Newtown Pike. For more information, call (859) 288-2437 or go to Lexingtonhealthdepartment.org.