The state Senate, despite overwhelming evidence and expert testimony from doctors and public health officials begging them to avoid a certain crisis on our streets and back alleys, passed a bill this past week that places greater restrictions on community syringe exchange programs.
Why? Because of tired and ill-informed stereotypes that say such programs breed crime and perpetuate drug use.
Decades of research say nothing could be further from the truth. If this bill weren’t so intentionally and apparently mean, it would be just plain dumb.
Looking at 14 HIV cases linked to injection drug use and more than 600 hepatitis C cases reported in 2019 in Kanawaha County, our state’s most populous county, the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy found that the approximate lifetime cost of treating those people would be $47 million.
Again, for one county.
Treating HIV and hepititis C is not inexpensive. Just the opposite, in fact. But we either treat it or people die.
Dr. Kevin Yingling, a pharmacy practitioner and former dean of Marshall University’s School of Pharmacy, has estimated the lifetime cost of treating one case of HIV at $510,000.
He told Lauren Peace, a reporter for Mountain State Spotlight, that was a cost that would be passed on to the taxpayers of West Virginia – if we did not fully embrace a prevention and harm reduction program.
This is not just up for discussion for the capital city. We have all noticed – on the streets and in periodic reports on the news and on the daily crime blotter – that drug use, overdoses and addiction are problems here in the southern reaches of the state, too. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention knows it, too. In 2018, it identified 220 counties across the U.S. as being at risk of a major HIV or hep C outbreak, with 28 of those counties in West Virginia. Those counties included Raleigh, Mercer, Wyoming, McDowell, Summers, Monroe, Fayette and Nicholas in The Register-Herald’s primary market.
And yet despite the testimony of Dr. Judith Feinberg, a professor of epidemiology and infectious disease at West Virginia University’s School of Medicine, and State Health Officer Dr. Ayne Amjad of Beckley, who argued that the proposed legislation would sacrifice public health by eliminating a supply of sterile syringes, the Senate passed this bill all the same. In doing so, they – yes, they, the senators, not the victims, those people strugling with the disease of addiction – risk fueling the spread of infectious diseases and limiting access to naloxone for people with substance use disorders in the midst of an overdose crisis.
No matter. Unconcerned, the Senate passed the bill along to the House with its stamp of approval.
As we said. Cruel. Unkind. Dumb.
We hope the House has the good sense to read and listen to the evidence and stop this measure in its tracks.
West Virginia needs to find cures, not perpetuate notions at odds with the facts.