Group rallies for return of needle exchange program in Charleston

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) — Those who are dealing with addiction and those who've lost loved ones to overdoses gathered at the steps of the West Virginia Capitol Monday night -- all to pay tribute to those who lost their lives due to accidental overdose.

A group rallied for the return of the needle exchange program in Charleston.
"I'm sick of burying my clients, I'm sick of burying my friends. Not one of the seventy thousand deaths that we have had from opioid overdoses weren't preventable," said Shannon Hicks, president of the West Virginia Union Exchange. "They were all preventable."

The West Virginia Union Exchange, the group which Hicks leads, is made up of people dealing with addiction who work with other addicts to help empower them and to help remove the stigma commonly associated with addiction.

"We are organizing all throughout the state to empower people who use drugs to prove that we don't lose our basic human rights just because we use drugs," Hicks said.

They came together Monday night for a candlelight vigil to not only pay tribute to lives lost, but also shed light on the issue of the drug epidemic and what they think can help prevent more deaths.

Hicks believes that bringing back the needle exchange program can help save lives. The program allows drug users to trade dirty needles for clean ones, with the goal of cutting down on diseases. Click here for more.

"In 2016, I almost died and all because, I didn't have access to sterile equipment," Hicks said.

"As a nurse, I'm exposed to a lot of things and when the needle exchange program was taken away from people who have this addiction -- that's not going to stop people using," said Denise Hanson, a woman who lost her son to a drug overdose in 2016.

However, critics say the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department was not being properly managed, adding that the public health and safety issues associated with needles not being properly disposed of posed a public health and safety problem.

WSAZ reported, back when the program was open, about a five-year-old and city refuse employee both being stuck by needles when needles weren't being thrown away properly; among others.

But Hanson says in other communities, the exchange program is successful.

"It's not only creating a safer environment for the people who are in active addiction, it's creating a safer environment for the medical professionals who are treating them," Hanson said.

Needle exchange programs aim to cut down on diseases like hepatitis C, which are spread when users share needles.

In early October, WSAZ reported that cases of hepatitis C have increased more than 100 percent in Kanawha County in a one-year period, but state health officials say it's not due to the end of the needle exchange program. Health officials attribute the increases due to more testing because of an hepatitis A outbreak at the time.

The West Virginia Exchange Union plans to hold another protest at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday at Davis Park in Charleston.