Dr. Sarah Moyer, interim health department director
Dr. Sarah Moyer, interim health department director

The Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness on Thursday gave a Metro Council committee an update on its syringe exchange program, with statistics showing an improved rate of return for used syringes.

And despite criticism of Louisville’s program from Republican state Senate President Robert Stivers — within a sensationalized WAVE3 hidden camera story last month that portrayed it as a dangerous failure — a bipartisan collection of council members showered praise on the program and re-emphasized their support.

Dr. Sarah Moyer, the interim health department director, told the Committee on Intergovernmental Affairs that from the beginning of the program this summer to late November, 1,329 individuals had participated, with 43 percent of those being returning participants. In the most recent week recorded, that number of returning participants had increased to 90 percent.

Moyer added that 86 had been tested for Hepatitis C — with 47 found positive and referred to treatment — and 156 for HIV, with no one yet found positive. While the main objective of the program is to discourage the use of shared needles to prevent an epidemic of those diseases (like what happened this year in Scott County, Ind., just 35 miles north of Louisville), 88 participants also have been referred to drug treatment programs. Moyer cited studies showing that participants of syringe exchange programs are five times more likely to seek drug treatment than those who do not.

Though the early rate of return for used needles was initially close to 9-to-1 this summer, this ratio has improved dramatically to 2-to-1. Moyer hopes that as the program continues, Louisville’s program can improve its rate of return to 90 percent.

Alluding to last month’s WAVE3 story — and the negative feedback toward the program that it elicited — Councilman Bill Hollander, D-9, said the meeting provided an opportunity for facts to outweigh fear.

“I know there has been a lot of misinformation, occasionally some sensationalism — and frankly, some fear in this community, which I think is understandable,” said Hollander. “So I think this kind of factual information is important.”

Councilwoman Vicki Aubrey Welch, D-13, repeated a story about a constituent whose family member was saved from a heroin overdose — because the family had obtained overdose remedy Nacran through the program — and defended the program from its critics.

“There are some out there who have told me: ‘Let them die. If that’s what they’re doing, let them die,'” said Welch. “Well, if it’s your son or daughter, I don’t think you want to let them die. I think you’d want to help them. And I think that’s what we’re here for, too, is to help them.”

While Sen. Stivers blasted the Louisville’s program in the WAVE3 story by saying it is “doing nothing but promoting greater use of heroin,” Republican council members asked pointed questions of Moyer, but mostly sang its praises.

Though saying the program is a work in progress and that the city needs more treatment providers — a point of view shared even by its strongest supporters — Councilman Robin Engel, R-22, said, “I appreciate the work you’re doing. We support you.”

Councilman Kelly Downard, R-16
Councilman Kelly Downard, R-16

Councilman Kelly Downard, R-16, noted that the primary purpose of the program is to prevent the spread of disease, but it also has an important secondary byproduct of steering people toward treatment and giving them a personal interaction with a counselor that is important.

“It’s important in this kind of meeting – because people keep sending us emails and keep calling us saying ‘all they’re doing is helping people’s drug addiction’ – to understand that the point of this program is to cut down on the spread of disease,” said Downard. “But as a byproduct… every time they come back in, it says to them ‘someone cares!’ And if that means something to us, it really means something to people who think nobody really does care. So I really want to applaud this program.”

Asked by Insider Louisville about some of the negative response to the program, Downard re-emphasized his support.

“They’ve been going less than five months, so they’ve got a lot they’re learning as they go along,” said Downard. “But the program is solid. It’s the way to go for disease. Like I said, it’s not going to stop drug addiction. It may help, but it’s not going to do it. It stops disease, and we saw what happened in Indiana, and we don’t want that to happen here.”

Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]


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