The remarkable thing about the federal ban on funding for needle-exchange programs is everything Congress must ignore to keep it.
Even more remarkable is that Rep. Hal Rogers, who founded Operation UNITE to fight drug abuse and its devastating effects in his Southeastern Kentucky district, supports the ban.
Needle exchanges give intravenous drug users sterile needles for dirty ones. Congressional critics rely on a gut feeling that providing needles endorses drug use. But 20 years of research argues otherwise. Where there are syringe exchange programs:
■ Participants are five times more likely to get treatment.
■ HIV and hepatitis C declines among drug users.
■ Participants can get referrals to substance abuse treatment, disease prevention education, vaccinations, condoms, counseling and testing for communicable diseases.
■ Costs are more than recaptured. A 2011 European study found that $1 spent on needle-exchange programs yielded $27 in health-care cost savings, prompting an international report to call needle exchanges "one of the most cost-effective public health interventions ever funded."
Consider, Louisville's proposed annual program cost is $225,000 while treatment for one hepatitis C patient runs to $84,000 a year.
Exchanges were permitted under the heroin legislation passed this year by the General Assembly and Louisville, Lexington and Northern Kentucky communities moved rapidly to develop them.
However, the authority came without funding. The Herald-Leader's Mary Meehan reported recently that smaller and poorer counties can't afford the programs and, because of the ban, can't access to federal dollars to help.
Public-health officials know that these areas are just one user away from the crisis that's struck Austin, Ind. In that town of about 4,300, the first AIDS case was diagnosed in December. By early March, there were 26 cases and now about 160, 80 percent of whom also have hepatitis C.
"There are a lot of the same ingredients," to fuel a similar outbreak in rural Kentucky, University of Kentucky researcher Jennifer Havens told Meehan. Havens has followed 500 drug abusers in Eastern Kentucky since 2008. She has found "dense networks," of users, who share drugs, needles, sex and sometimes sex for drugs.
Hepatitis C, a liver disease that can progress to liver cirrhossis or cancer, has spread rapidly among drug users. The Centers for Disease Control says Kentucky, where hepatitis C infections have risen 300 percent since 2007, leads the nation in the incidence of acute hepatitis C. Among the users Havens tracks 80 percent have hepatitis C.
Some users have sex partners who don't know about the IV drug use, and so are at risk of infection. Concealed dirty needles can infect first responders and police; and discarded needles can harm anyone from children at playgrounds to volunteers cleaning up roadsides.
The outbreak in Indiana led Republican Gov. Dan Pence, who supported the federal funding ban while in Congress, to order an emergency, 30-day needle-exchange program in Scott County, where Austin is located. That has been extended for a year and a new law allows others across the state.
Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy, a Democrat, has asked Congress to lift the funding ban to help states; 33 now allow exchanges.
It is unconscionable for Rogers and other members of Congress to block funds for needle exchanges that can reduce addiction and save money and lives.