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Needles: Cabell County HIV cluster raises questions

HIV, which can lead to fullblown AIDS, is exploding in Cabell County. The cause: People who share needles to inject illicit drugs.

One unsettling aspect of the “cluster” of HIV cases, as health professionals are referring to the situation, is that the Cabell County Health Department has a needle exchange program, where intravenous drug users can obtain sterile needles.

Curbing the spread of disease is the primary purpose of needle exchange initiatives.

Hundreds of HIV patients, some with AIDS, live throughout the Mountain State. Cabell County is the only site where a major outbreak of HIV has occurred. There, 49 new cases have been confirmed since January 2018.

HIV is rare in West Virginia, in comparison to most other states. But public health officials worry the Cabell County outbreak is a precursor for an increase in cases elsewhere in the state.

Every one of the new cases has been traced to sharing of contaminated syringes by intravenous drug users.

How is it that, in a county where clean needles can be had for the asking, the new HIV patients continued to engage in terribly risky behavior? What can be done to convince others, perhaps addicts who cannot or will not kick the drug habit, to abstain from sharing syringes?

Those are critical questions, not just for intravenous drug users. Once infected with HIV, hepatitis or another blood-borne disease, the drug addicts may pass it to members of the general public.

In other counties, needle exchange programs SEEM to have helped curb the spread of disease. Why do they seem to be working — and, just as important, how many illicit drug users are not using them? Those questions need to be answered, too.

What is happening in Cabell County is troubling, to say the least. Keeping it from happening elsewhere ought to be a top priority for public health officials throughout West Virginia.

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