Eliminating needle exchange programs can lead to more cases of Hepatitis C, officials say

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MONONGALIA COUNTY, W.Va. (WDTV) — According to the West Virginia health department's latest report, Hepatitis C cases in Kanawha County have soared to their highest numbers in years – just months after a safe needle exchange program was ended.

With the Harrison County Health Department voting to close their needle exchange program last month, officials worry this uptick could impact health closer to their homes too.

Hep C is a disease of the liver and largely impacts those who use IV drugs, which is why medical officials like Dr. Lee Smith say programs providing safe and clean needles are vital.

"We know that the biggest pools of those individuals are using or injecting drugs, so removing from them the opportunity to have clean equipment should not surprise that we're seeing increasing cases of hepatitis,"

While the argument has been made that these programs encourage drug use, Dr. Smith says it's actually an important step in the recovery and treatment process.

"It's medical, it's social, it's vocational, all of those things and more help get people into rehabilitation,"

Dr. Smith says it's treating drug use as a disease that will allow for change to be made and lives to be saved.

"Substance abuse disorder is a disorder and those individuals need our help," Dr. Smith said "And we don't want to end up losing a generation of people because of our failure to do something,"

WDTV reached out to the Harrison County Health Department, and officials said they cannot yet comment on how they're going to address the health risks after the closing of their program.

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