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West Virginia Officials Block Clean Needle Programs Despite HIV Outbreak

ANDRE CHUNG FOR THE WASHINGTON POST VIA GETTY IMAGES

Political agendas are preventing much-needed syringe exchange programs in the state. 

In August 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) finished an investigation on an HIV outbreak in Kanawa County, West Virginia. The findings cited the county with “the most concerning HIV outbreak in the United States” and a warning that the reported diagnoses may only be “the tip of the iceberg.”

Brooke Parker, a care coordinator for the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program, has spent the last two years exploring the roads less traveled in the county with an effort to contain the HIV outbreak. She, alongside a cadre of experts, worry that new cases and HIV-related deaths will increase as political winds continue to blow against efforts to control the virus.

Homeless encampments and abandoned houses account for much of the growing rates. This could be attributed to HIV’s ability to survive in a syringe for up to 42 days, which is accelerated by the drug usage of the affected group. Research has also indicated that offering clean syringes to people who use IV drugs is an effective way to combat the spread of HIV.

Although the CDC issued recommendations to expand and improve access to sterile syringes, state and local government officials in West Virginia have issued laws and ordinances that make getting those syringes harder.

This presents an issue for a substantial amount of people at the highest risk of contracting HIV. One organization, Solutions Oriented Addiction Response (SOAR), previously offered clean syringes in exchange for contaminated ones. However, it has ceased the exchange in the face of efforts to criminalize their work.

Joe Solomon, co-director of the organization and a recently elected Charleston City Council official, said the backlash against harm reduction is “a public attack on health.”

20 of the 27 new HIV infections in 2022 are related to drug injection, and 46 of 56 new cases in 2021 were due to the same cause.

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