HUNTINGTON — Cabell County’s ongoing HIV cluster has noticeably contributed to more people using the county’s Harm Reduction Program, according to the Cabell-Huntington Health Department. The influx indicates the population at risk — chiefly intravenous drug users — is aware they are vulnerable and actively seeking help to protect themselves.
The Harm Reduction Program saw 937 visits in May — just over 30 per day on average — including 52 new people enrolled, according to statistics reported at the department’s monthly board of health meeting Wednesday. In April, the program had 853 visits.
Clients actively mention their HIV fears when visiting the Harm Reduction Program, said Dr. Michael Kilkenny, CHHD physician director.
“A lot of people who inject drugs are very concerned about their health,” Kilkenny said. “Now that they know this risk is present in the community, they’re coming in to learn more about how to protect themselves and obtain the sterile equipment they can’t get anywhere else.”
Though most publicly known for its syringe exchange, the Harm Reduction Program offers basic clinical screenings, care and information to the county’s at-risk population. Walking in, clients are given a nursing assessment and screened for what types of drugs they use and how they use them, and can be tested for HIV. They’re taught the risks and how to avoid them, and are visited by a recovery coach who can refer them into treatment for addiction.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, IV drug users are five times more likely to seek treatment if they are in contact with a harm reduction program.
“You have people [in the community] who think these people who inject drugs don’t care about their health, but they actually do,” added Michelle Perdue, coordinator for the CHHD’s Harm Reduction Program. “They’re wanting to know more about how HIV and hepatitis C is contracted. There’s a lot of misinformation out there.”
From a public health perspective, it’s a ray of optimism that those most vulnerable realize it and feel comfortable enough to seek help.
“We’re very gratified that they perceive us as a place that they can come and that we will treat them with respect, that we will give them sound advice, and that we’ll help them if they’re ready to get into treatment,” Kilkenny said.
Cabell County’s Harm Reduction Program serves more than 600 individuals, though with varying degrees of frequency, Perdue said. Some may visit weekly, while others may still be enrolled but haven’t been seen in months.
The single most potent tool available to contain the spread of HIV, as Kilkenny called it, is the department’s syringe exchange within the Harm Reduction Program.
The purpose of a syringe exchange, ideally, is to provide clean syringes to IV drug users to control the spread of bloodborne diseases through needle sharing. Cabell-Huntington’s syringe exchange has operated since 2015.
Cabell County’s current HIV cluster is now at 53 cases, according to the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources.
The cluster, tracked from January 2018 to the present, represents a sharp uptick from the baseline average of eight cases annually over the past five years. Cabell County’s is currently the only active HIV cluster in West Virginia, though a new handful of cases have cropped up along the Ohio River Valley in the wake of the nationwide opioid epidemic.
The situation is still defined as a cluster rather than a full outbreak. The West Virginia Bureau for Public Health characterizes a cluster as being confined to a certain population — in this case, IV drug users — where it may be able to be controlled with minimal risk to the general public.
There are an estimated 1,800 active IV drug users in Cabell County, according to a study by Johns Hopkins University.