JEFFERSONVILLE — The Clark County Commissioners agreed to extend the county’s syringe exchange program, with hopes that the return rate of used syringes can improve in the future.
The vote during Thursday's meeting to extend the program for one year was unanimous. The program will be up for renewal at the end of August 2018.
Clark County Health Officer Dr. Kevin Burke believes the discovery of new cases of hepatitis C, a disease spread through sharing needles, show the exchange is justified.
About half of the 150 participants have hepatitis C, many of them who were diagnosed through the program.
“Hepatitis C was one of the reasons I felt we need an exchange for syringes, and that finding bears out that suspicion,” Burke said.
Commissioners were troubled, however, that only half of the syringes given out are returned by participants of the program who come back from week to week.
Of the nearly 16,000 clean syringes distributed, the exchange has collected almost 8,000.
"I wish that number were more balanced, and we're working on a way to get a better return on use of syringes," Burke said.
Commissioners' President Jack Coffman, who said he was "disturbed" by those figures, would like to request more frequent reporting from the exchange.
"That would help us to get a better handle on it," he said.
One member of the public, Lisa Morris, worries some of those 8,000 dirty needles not returned are in public parks or streets, in places children walk and play.
"That's a lot of unaccounted for needles that we're giving to criminals, basically," Morris said.
Clark County Commissioner Bryan Glover asked program leaders if they have encouraged a "one for one" exchange.
“I would hope in a perfect world, if you brought in 10, you would receive 10," Glover said.
Laura Lindley, Clark County Health Department administrator, said participants are told to bring back their used syringes.
“Of course, we hear every excuse to they just don’t have them, they were thrown away, they were arrested … They are provided sharps containers so that they can store the used syringes properly.”
The county’s initial establishment of the program two years ago came shortly after an unprecedented HIV outbreak caused by intravenous drug use in neighboring Scott County.
Syringe exchange programs are intended to curb the spread of diseases like HIV and hepatitis C by offering drug users clean needles to discourage sharing used ones.
Glover admitted it took him some time to come around to the idea of a syringe exchange.
"I think what I had to look at is it was more of a health issue and not a drug issue," he said.
"We really appreciate what the county has done," she said.
Research that breaks down county overdose deaths by zip code revealed what Burke said was surprising new information — drug addiction significantly touches the county’s smaller towns.
The health officer calculated the death rate of cities and towns in Clark County, which is measured in the number of overdose deaths per 100,000 people.
Last year, Jeffersonville experienced 41 overdose deaths, or a death rate of 87. Sellersburg only had eight overdose deaths, but that equals a death rate of 91. And in Charlestown, which had 10 overdose deaths, its death rate was 123.
“What this emphasizes is it’s not only a city issue, a larger population issue,” Burke said, “It really is affecting all areas of the county.”
Burke is hopeful that the number of overdose deaths will soon decrease, or at least level off.
In the first six months of this year, there were 40 overdose deaths in Clark County. Extrapolated as another 40 for the latter half of 2017, and the number of overdose deaths is nine fewer than last year.
Participants in the program are taught how to inject more safely and are also given Narcan, an opioid overdose reversal drug.
“There may be some evidence that the number is headed in the right direction,” Burke said.