Health

After months of planning, the Louisville Department of Health and Wellness will launch the city’s needle exchange program Wednesday.

Louisville’s program got strong support from city leaders, but similar programs have been a highly debated since the mid-1980s, when they began springing up across the country as a way to prevent the spread of HIV, Hepatitis C, and other infectious diseases.

As of 2012, 203 exchange programs operated at one or more site in 34 states, D.C., Puerto Rico and the Indian Nations, according to an analysis by amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research.

Louisville Metro Health program will be the first needle exchange  in Kentucky.

But some question if a needle exchange sends the wrong message.

Taylorsville resident Bobby Hawkins said he believes a needle exchange is a terrible idea.

“You’re promoting them to use drugs,” Hawkins said of prospective needle exchange clients.

“If they come in and exchange needles, you should arrest them right there for using the needles to start with.”

This spring, state legislators approved a bill meant to combat the rising usage of heroin in the state. The bill allowed local governments to set up needle exchanges—and that provision was among the most debated elements of the bill.

The stigma surrounding needle exchange programs may come from a fundamental misunderstanding of addiction, said  Amanda Newton, a spokeswoman for the Seven Counties Services, a local nonprofit that provides addiction and behavioral health services.

“It’s a brain disease. It can be hereditary. People don’t ask for this,” she said.

Newton says the needle exchange will hopefully attract drug users that ordinarily wouldn’t seek treatment.

“If people say not in my backyard having these needle exchange programs then I think we’re really going to fail our community. We’re going to fail the addicts in need,” she said.

Nearly all needle exchange programs provide a range of public health services, and Louisville’s program will be no different. The city’s program will include a substance abuse counselor on site, and people will be able to obtain naloxone, an overdose prevention drug. Also, volunteers will do special street-outreach efforts.

The health department has budgeted $50,000 for syringes, and city officials anticipate giving participants a week’s worth of needles regardless of whether they exchange used needles for clean ones.

Bill Piper, director of public affairs for the non-profit Drug Policy Alliance, said the primary purpose of needle exchange programs is to reduce the spread of infectious diseases, but they are often a bridge to drug treatment.

“People aren’t going to run out and do heroin who aren’t already doing heroin. Anyone who wants to use heroin can already use it. The only question is, are they going to use a sterile syringe or are they going to use a syringe that might be contaminated,” Piper said.

And treatment can be very, very hard to get, Piper said.

“So, syringe programs keep people from getting deadly diseases and keep them alive until treatment can become available,” Piper said.

Louisville Metro Health officials say beds have already been reserved at all treatment facilities in the city for people showing the greatest need for services, such as pregnant women.

The program was spurred by increases in illegal intravenous drug use, and an HIV outbreak in Scott County, Indiana, 40 miles north of Louisville.

And just like any other debate, there are supporters on both sides. Many residents see a needle exchange program as a service that’s necessary to prevent the spread of infectious diseases.

Gerald Edwards, who lives off of Southern Parkway, said something needs to be done to prevent the recent HIV outbreak in Indiana from crossing the river.

“It’s a drug problem here, too. Same epidemic it is over in Indiana, it can happen here, too. So, I don’t have a problem with it,” Edwards said.

Louisville’s needle exchange program will operate six days a week at the health department’s downtown location on Gray Street.