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Fighting HIV and Hepatitis Inside Appalachia

Molly Born/ WVPB
Crystal Simpson, Fred Cox and Gena Carter load up the Wyoming County mobile harm reduction unit van after providing services in Allen Junction, Wyoming County.

In parts of Appalachia, needle exchange programs have brought controversy, and they sometimes carry a stigma that such offerings enable, or even encourage, drug use. But supporters say the practice, especially when coupled with addiction treatment options for participants, can help get them on a path to recovery.

The 10 counties in the United States most at risk for an HIV outbreak are all in Central Appalachia, according to a 2016 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Compiled after a 2015 outbreak of the disease in southern Indiana, the report found that places with a combination of high poverty, low access to health care, and rampant intravenous drug were mostly likely to experience a similar outbreak of HIV and hepatitis C.

The spread of needle-borne diseases like hepatitis and HIV is an increasingly prevalent side effect of the opioid epidemic. Some communities have opened their own needle exchange programs, sometimes called syringe exchange services, a medically-accepted practice in which intravenous drug users are given an opportunity to exchange their used and possibly infected needles for clean, new ones.

Between 2013 and 2017, the number of needle exchange programs increased from one to more than 50 in Kentucky, North Carolina and West Virginia.

This week on Inside Appalachia we explore how community members in the region are coping and what resources are available to help prevent the spread of these diseases.  

We’ll meet a nurse in Martinsburg, W.Va., who runs a harm reduction clinic. And we’ll hear about a new program in southern West Virginia, where the Wyoming County health department has become the first county health department in the state to offer a mobile harm reduction unit, including a needle exchange.

Inside Appalachia is produced by Roxy Todd. The executive producer is Jesse Wright. Catherine Moore edited this episode. Patrick Stephens is our audio mixer. Molly Born is our web editor. Music in this episode was provided by Dinosaur BurpsMichael Howard and Ben Townsend.  

Jessica can be heard on Inside Appalachia and West Virginia Morning the station’s daily radio news program. You can reach her at jlilly@wvpublic.org
Roxy Todd is a reporter and producer for Inside Appalachia and has been a reporter for West Virginia Public Broadcasting since 2014. She’s won several awards, including a regional AP Award for best feature radio story, and also two regional Edward R. Murrow awards. You can reach her at rtodd@wvpublic.org.