County gives out new syringes

WHEELING — The Wheeling-Ohio County Health Department’s needle exchange has distributed more than 15,000 new syringes since the program’s inception two and a half years ago, but has accepted a larger quantity of used needles through the exchange and from other sources.

Administrator Howard Gamble said as of Thursday, “we have given out 15,615 needles in our program.” The local exchange opened in September 2015.

The health department conducts an off-site program at Northwood Health System, 2121 Eoff St., from noon to 3 p.m. every Friday. New syringes also are distributed during homeless outreach clinics and at the health department’s office in the City-County Building, 1500 Chapline St.

This program operates as a one-for-one free exchange, in which health personnel accept used needles and give out an equal number of sterile syringes, up to a maximum of 20 needles per visit.

Figures are not available for the exact numbers of used needles that have been collected from the exchange and other sources.

Gamble said, “Our program is a one-for-one. Given this, we can assume that we have accepted 15,615 or more needles during our exchange clinic. However, we accept and collect far more used, dirty or discarded needles than this number, since we collect from local law enforcement, the general public (individuals not participating in the exchange) and when we get calls of needles on the streets.”

Likewise, it is not known how many clients participate repeatedly in the needle exchange program.

The administrator explained, “Our clinic tracking is very limited. This is by design. Data includes the date of the clinic, number of needles given (they have to give the same or more to get 20 at one time), were condoms given, number of alcohol swabs, was a brochure given, was treatment discussed/referral, was testing discussed/referral and are the (clients) male or female. We don’t track repeat clients.”

Meanwhile, Wheeling Police Chief Shawn Schwertfeger and Wheeling Fire Chief Larry Helms both think the needle exchange reduces the risk of infectious disease being spread by intravenous drug users in the community. Helms also said the program lowers the number of dirty needles discarded improperly.

Schwertfeger and Helms said there have been no reported incidents of sabotage or booby traps set with used needles in Wheeling. In Charleston — where controversy swirls around a needle exchange program — police and fire officials have complained about dirty needles and alleged booby-trapping.

Asked about the local needle exchange, Helms said, “If anything, it’s helped … some (people) are more responsible about how they discard their needles.

“I think it has (helped),” the fire chief said. “There’s pros and cons to everything. “It’s accomplished what the health department tried, to prevent the spread of diseases from sharing needles. It’s less frequent finding these needles lying in the street. You still do, but it’s not as much.”

Wheeling firefighters and paramedics have found poorly discarded needles on calls in the street or during situations in homes, Helms said. “It doesn’t need to be necessarily illegal drug use. It might be someone who is diabetic and has used needles in the home,” he added. “The biggest problem (is) they are potentially contaminated.”

Emergency personnel have been pricked by needles accidentally “numerous times over the years, generally through patient care and a couple of times from poorly discarded needles,” Helms said.

Employees have sought medical attention after such incidents, but haven’t contracted any infectious diseases, he said.

It is difficult to make a direct correlation between the incidence of infectious diseases such as Hepatitis C and the availability of needle exchanges.

Gamble said, “Hepatitis C is a contagious liver disease that ranges in severity from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to a serious, lifelong illness that attacks the liver. It results from infection with the Hepatitis C virus (HCV), which is spread primarily through contact with the blood of an infected person. Hepatitis C can be either ‘acute’ or ‘chronic.'”

Asked for the number of Hepatitis C cases in Ohio County since the needle exchange’s inception, he said, “When local public health is asked for the number of cases, specifically for Hep C, this can be difficult to sum up in one line.”

The state tracks the number of chronic and acute Hepatitis C cases. However, Gamble said, “On the local level we don’t always get this data, or it may not be readily available to local health departments. The number of cases or rates are based on laboratory testing, so there may be more Hep C cases in the community that are never tested.”

For Ohio County, state records indicate 44 chronic cases of Hepatitis C in 2012; 55 chronic cases in 2013; 89 chronic cases in 2014; 107 chronic cases and one acute case in 2015 and 144 chronic cases and two acute cases in 2016. Statistics for 2017 aren’t available yet.

Regarding the rising figures, Gamble said, “The chronic number includes both past and present cases and is based on who was tested and are residents only.”

Testing for Hepatitis C is increasing, he added. Some of the increase can be the result of drug use or for other factors such as age (specifically, baby boomers) and medical and health care workers who were exposed.

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