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Health officials address concerns over needle exchange program

The Kanawha-Charleston Health Department continues to re-assess its Harm Reduction program. (WCHS/WVAH)

The Kanawha-Charleston Health Department continues to re-assess its Harm Reduction program. Part of that program is the needle exchange, which allows people to get free, clean needles.

They are asked to bring back dirty ones, but not everyone does. That's led to numerous complaints with some asking if the program is doing more harm than good.

Board of Health members said during their meeting on Thursday the goal of needle exchange is to get as many clean needles as possible into the community, but when those needles are left there and not exchange, it creates a danger to the public and while the board hopes to continue this part of the program they say it needs some refining.

Needles are turning up in public places, like playgrounds, parks, even in shopping centers, and it's and sparking concerns from communities.

"The biggest issues were brought to our attention. It's syringe litter in the community. So every syringe that's in the community is tiring to be linked to the Harm Reduction program the needle exchange program," KCHD Prevention Wellness Director, Tina Ramirez.

Ramirez with the Kanawha- Charleston Health Department explained that the exchange rate is high, at around 88%, but there's a caveat. The number only includes the people who are actually "exchanging" needles, coming in with dirty ones, to get clean ones.

It doesn't include the number of people who come at one time only to get a fresh batch of needles, who never bring them back. That creates a gap of another 250,000 needles bringing the rate down to around 63%.

"It's a little over two years into the program, and it's growing pains, you know I think that we have grown so quickly so fast that we need to have some revamping and change the program to meet the needs of the community," Ramirez said.

There have been changes to the program to better keep track of who is exchanging needles and how many they are taking with them, but County Commission President Kent Carper said police and first responders are seeing this problem in a different light.

"It's a little different out there on the street at two o'clock in the morning than it is in this building," Carper said.

He urged the board to not make needle exchange a two-sided issue but to meet with police and first responders to come up with a solution.

"They may not like what they hear from the police, but the police and the first responders have a right to say what they think," Carper said.

Making the possession of needles illegal is expected to be brought up at the next city council meeting, which if passed would effectively end the program. Ramirez said she hopes city leaders and the Board of Health can come to a compromise.

"That would be detrimental to the program to the health of the community if we cut it off totally. We're willing to do whatever we can to maintain the program and help establish it in different parts of the county," Ramirez said.

Board members also said needle exchange is just a facet of the Harm Reduction program, and the program will continue whether needle exchange continues or not.

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