WKYT Investigates | Health officials pleased with Lexington's needle exchange

LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - Kevin Blankenship had an opiate addiction for three years.

"An addict is going to use, regardless," he explained to WKYT's MIranda Combs last week.

"Soon after I started using needles is when I had the realization where everything, I lost everything," he said. He never used dirty needles, but knows people who did.

"They are bringing the needles in. It's like taking the unexploded munitions out of a minefield and getting rid of it," explained Fayette County Health Commissioner Dr. Rice Leach.

Leach's only concern is public health. He said Kentucky has the most cases of Hepatitis C per capita in the country. He believes Kentucky's needle exchange, in time, will bring that number down and control the threat of other bloodborne diseases.

"We are statistically removing the risk of those diseases," he said.

The controversial program has been going on for three weeks now in Fayette County. A person can bring in dirty needles and can get up to 21 back at a time.

The planning for Fayette County's program went on for several months before it opened, after Kentucky legislation was passed allowing needle exchanges in Kentucky.

"The idea of reach out, get them to come in, bring their dirty needles, is working," Leach said.

So far, the number of dirty needles coming in to the health department has been much larger than the number of people. One person brought in 400 dirty needles.

"One of the things the bill was intended to do was to cut down on needle sticks," explained State Senator Whitney Westerfield. Westerfield was a contributor to the heroin legislation.

He has some concerns about Louisville's approach to the needle exchange. At Louisville's health department, a person doesn't have to bring in any needles to get clean ones.

"They are flooding the marketplace with needles and we're not getting all those needles back," Westerfield said. He said the needle exchange legislation never laid out rules for how the programs should run, on purpose, so counties could craft their own exchange.

But he said that may need to be reconsidered. He said some of his colleagues are considering tightening up the rules for the exchanges.

"My intent was that it would be a one for one exchange. That there would be some requirement that you could bring a needle in in order to walk back out the door with one," Westerfield said.

A spokesperson for Louisville's health department said the gap of people getting and giving back needles is narrowing since their program started in June.

From June 10 to September 12, Louisville has seen 615 clients, 15,213 needles have been returned, and 37,637 have been given out.

They, like Fayette County, said their primary goal is to protect the public heath, prevent needle sharing, and get addicts back in contact with the healthcare system.

"You're encouraging healthier use, and as those healthy habits begin to change, they move away from substance abuse and to healthier living in general," Westerfield agreed.



 
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