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A team from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is in West Virginia to help public health officials respond to an increase in HIV related to injection drug use in Cabell County. 

As of April 22, the state Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR) was aware of 44 related cases of HIV, according to Allison Adler, spokeswoman for DHHR.

The Cabell-Huntington Health Department had reported 28 related cases tied to injection drug use as of late March. Needle sharing among people who use drugs can spread diseases like HIV.

Public health officials said, at the time, that all those diagnosed were Cabell County residents or diagnosed in Cabell County. 

Friday, Adler said that DHHR's Bureau for Public Health had requested a CDC "Epi-Aid" to help health officials in West Virginia. An Epi-Aid is "an investigation of an urgent public health problem," according to the CDC website, and would include people from the CDC with expertise in responding to HIV outbreaks. CDC officials did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

Adler said the team has been here for a week and will be here for two more weeks. Some of the team's goals, according to Adler, include: 

• helping the state learn to better track how new cases of HIV are being detected and whether related cases are in other counties or states.

• potentially helping public health officials here plan a study of people who inject drugs. The study would include HIV testing, interviews about injecting and sexual behavior, and referral to treatment if needed.

• figuring out whether sex workers are engaged with the health care system.

• expanding the number of health clinics that offer pre-exposure prophylaxis (or PrEP) for people at risk of HIV. PrEP is a medication that can prevent HIV. 

Dr. Judith Feinberg, a professor in the West Virginia University School of Medicine and an HIV health care provider and researcher of more than 30 years, has said that West Virginia lacks enough health care providers knowledgeable about treating HIV. She has also said Medicaid and most commercial insurance covers PrEP, and that it's recommended for high-risk people, such as sex workers or those who inject drugs.

While HIV is treatable, it may be fatal if the person is not diagnosed and linked to care. Shannon McBee, senior epidemiologist at DHHR, has said people who use drugs can reduce risk by using clean needle programs where available. Research shows those programs stop the spread of HIV by reducing needle-sharing.

She has also said drug users can reduce chances by no longer injecting or by using only sterile needles, never sharing needles, cleaning their skin with a new alcohol swab before injecting, making sure not to get someone’s blood on their hand or their needle, disposing properly after one use, not giving needles away, getting tested at least once a year, and talking to their health care providers about pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP.

All health departments in the state offer HIV testing. Some, including the Raleigh County Health Department, also offer prescriptions for PrEP.

Email: ebeck@register-herald.com and follow on Twitter @3littleredbones

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