HIV outbreak in Appalachian Ky. ‘just a matter of time;’ majority of counties have no syringe exchange

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An outbreak of the human immunodeficiency virus, which leads to AIDS, is “just a matter of time” in Appalachian Kentucky because of conditions in the region and the lack of syringe exchanges for intravenous drug users in most vulnerable counties.

That’s what Dr. Jennifer Havens, an epidemiologist at the University of Kentucky, told the Courier Journal’s Laura Ungar for a story updating the county-by-county threat first identified by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2016.

Dr. Jennifer Havens (Photo from Kentucky Health News)

Using “statistics tied to injecting drugs, such as overdose deaths, prescription-opioid sales, low income and unemployment,” Ungar notes, the CDC identified 220 counties in the U.S. that were most vulnerable to outbreaks of HIV or hepatitis C, a liver infection that can also be spread by needle sharing.

Kentucky has 54 of those counties, mostly in Eastern and Southern Kentucky, but 30 of them “haven’t given the go-ahead for needle exchanges,” Ungar reports. “And programs approved in the vulnerable counties of Wolfe, Perry and Letcher have yet to open.” Ungar’s story has a national, interactive map with the ranking of each county.

Ungar adds, “Elizabeth Turner, director of the district health department covering those counties, said they’ve managed to partly fund Wolfe’s exchange but are having trouble buying needles because some of the grant money can’t be used for them. She explained the situation to a state health official this week, she said, and was told Kentucky just received harm reduction funds that will be sent out to counties, including Wolfe. Although this money also can’t be used for needles, Turner is hopeful it could offset other expenses,” freeing up money to buy syringes.

“HIV has been found across Appalachia, though known rates so far are lower than in urban Kentucky, where testing is more common,” Ungar reports. “April Young, a University of Kentucky assistant professor of epidemiology, said less HIV testing in Eastern Kentucky means the disease could be spreading silently.”

As evidence of that, “Researchers point to an explosion of HIV’s widely-accepted harbinger: the potentially deadly liver disease hepatitis C,” Ungar notes. “Like HIV, ‘hep C’ can be spread by sharing needles. And it’s easier to contract, so it’s not uncommon to have both diseases. . . . Havens’ long-term study of Eastern Kentucky drug users found that once they start shooting up, most get hep C within a year. . . . From 2008 to 2015, Kentucky had the nation’s highest rate of new, acute hep C infections, with 1,089 cases. Another 38,000 Kentuckians live with chronic hep C. ”

Meanwhile, “People have forgotten about HIV. … But it’s becoming clear you have the stage set for a major increase in these infections (in places) we’ve basically ignored,” Dr. Paul Volberding, director of the AIDS Research Institute at the University of California-San Francisco, told Ungar. “Whenever we have an infectious disease and we turn our back, it bites us.”

Ungar writes, “Many believe the solution begins with fighting addiction in each family, school and community. But the sheer scope of the drug scourge dwarfs grassroots efforts.”

From Kentucky Health News

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