It has become common knowledge that our state is suffering from a strong uptick in heroin use. Families have been torn apart and communities devastated by a drug that was, until fairly recently, largely absent in rural America.
Politicians and public health officials have struggled to have a robust response to the issue, and many have overlooked something that has to be a crucial part of any comprehensive solution — syringe access programs.
These programs are misunderstood and deeply stigmatized, and current policies prohibiting funding do not help matters. Nonetheless, if we are serious about tackling Kentucky's heroin problem, we must have a sensible conversation about syringe programs.
Syringe programs have existed in the U.S. since the 1980s, and came about largely as a response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Such programs allow drug users to dispose of used syringes, and gain access to sterile syringes. In doing so, the programs prevent the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C.
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The programs do not encourage drug use, and indeed studies have shown that such programs reduce drug use by providing access to treatment, as well as overdose training and general health-care access. In the first decade of the millennium, hepatitis C rates rose 50 percent, a number that has continued to grow. Both HIV and hepatitis C can be spread congenitally, passing these highly fatal diseases onto innocent children from birth. Not only do syringe programs give drug users a second chance at life, but they protect future generations.
The economic consequences of syringe-associated disease transmission have increased proportionally with the recent explosion in infection rates. Hepatitis C often goes unreported, and thus known cases are likely far lower than actual rates. Even so, the aggregate lifetime cost of Americans currently infected with hepatitis C is $360 billion.
In addition, one-third of the nation's liver transplants — which cost $280,000 each — happen as a result of hepatitis C. In stark contrast, syringe programs help eliminate this public health crisis without adding to the financial burden on American taxpayers.
Unfortunately, our legislators at the state and national level do not seem to view syringe programs this way. Recently, legislation to create a syringe program in Kentucky failed as the 2014 legislative session drew to a close. At the federal level, there is a ban on federal funding for syringe programs.
Luckily, Rep. Hal Rogers has been thoughtful about how to approach the issue of heroin and, as the current chair of the House Appropriations Committee, is in a position to sway lawmakers to lift the funding ban and stop Washington from being out of touch with the public health needs of states like Kentucky.
Against that backdrop, over 130 local groups from across the country, including many from Kentucky, have signed onto a letter calling on Rogers to help lift the deeply detrimental ban on federal funding for syringe programs.
We all must be aware that the heroin crisis our state currently suffers will not disappear overnight, nor is there a single silver bullet that will solve all our problems. Instead, we must focus on a variety of approaches to tackling the heroin problem. For the sake of our state and its future, syringe programs must be a part of any comprehensive strategy seeking to alleviate our heroin crisis.