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HIV Rates: Rethinking solution may be necessary

As federal officials are being brought on board to address an HIV outbreak in West Virginia, a warning in February by Dr. Demetre Daskalakis, the Centers for Disease Control’s chief of HIV prevention, rings through:

“It is possible the current case count represents the tip of the iceberg,” Daskalakis said. “There are likely many more undiagnosed cases in the community. We are concerned that transmission is ongoing and that the number of people with HIV will continue to increase unless urgent action is taken.”

But what action? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials are going to be part of that discussion this week.

Approximately two-thirds of West Virginia’s HIV cases are related to intravenous drug use. According to state epidemiologist Shannon McBee, last year 35 of Kanawha County’s HIV cases were tied to intravenous drug use. Kanawha County has 178,000 people. For the same time period, New York City and its 8 million people had 36 cases of HIV tied to intravenous drug use.

Many believed a solution could be found in needle exchange programs. But developing well-regulated programs that are truly helpful to addicts AND minimize the negative effects on the neighborhoods where they work has proved difficult.

In fact some such programs have bristled at the idea of more regulations and requirements.

Why? If the folks organizing these programs are truly interested in helping addicts and the communities in which they live, why would they resist being as safe and providing as many resources for recovery as possible?

An important part of the conversation, then, will be finding out how much of what we thought we were doing to tackle this and its underlying problem must be rethought–and perhaps scrapped to start over.

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