By WENDY HOLDREN
BECKLEY, W.Va. — With the spread of hepatitis C on the rise, a local doctor is again trying to curb the public health crisis in Beckley with a needle exchange program.
“West Virginia is heading toward No. 1 for hepatitis C in the U.S.,” said Dr. Ayne Amjad. “We’re already in the top three.”
Amjad, along with Beckley Pharmacy owner Ali Sherwani, started a syringe exchange program at two Beckley Pharmacy locations in August 2016.
But due to a growing amount of drug use in the parking lots of the pharmacies, and a lack of funding, the program was temporarily closed for roughly four months.
The city’s only needle exchange program has been back up and running, quietly, since March at the Eisenhower Drive location of Beckley Pharmacy.
To participate in the program, intravenous drug users must exchange at least one used needle for two new ones. Amjad said previously, users weren’t discarding their syringes in the proper disposal locations. She is hopeful users will adhere to the guidelines.
Information is still available at the exchange site for treatment and recovery options. No user information is being collected currently, Amjad said, so she’s unsure of how many people are participating in the program.
According to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, new hepatitis C virus infections in the U.S. nearly tripled between 2010 and 2015.
The highest rates were seen among 20- to 29-year-olds who inject drugs. West Virginia is one of seven states with hepatitis C rates at least twice the national average.
“Even in my own practice, I’m seeing more hepatitis C cases,” Amjad said.
She said it’s truly a vicious cycle — as intravenous drug users become infected with hepatitis C, the virus is spread among sexual partners. Women infected with the virus become pregnant, then pass the virus on to their children.
Maternal hepatitis C infection rates have increased 89 percent, according to the CDC, from 1.8 to 3.4 women per 1,000 live births. In West Virginia, the infection rate is 22.6 women per 1,000 live births.
Many patients who seek drug treatment can do so because of their Medicaid coverage, Amjad noted.
“A lot of the patients now being seen have never had insurance. If that’s being taken away (through the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid expansion), one patient asked me, ‘What will I do?’ The state itself does not have enough money to treat drug addiction.”
Much research has shown needle exchange programs can reduce the spread of HIV and hepatitis C infections.
But in West Virginia, where one of the greatest problems exists, a stigma still surrounds the public health program.
“There’s a lack of empathy for people,” Amjad said. “People here are quick to judge, quick to blame.”
As a health care provider, Amjad said she never discriminates or judges her patients. She just tries to provide them with the best options for their health.
There’s a misconception that syringe exchange programs promote drug use, but Amjad said that simply isn’t true. The program is a way to help prevent the spread of disease.
Amjad previously expressed interest in the Beckley-Raleigh County Health Department taking charge on the needle exchange program, but she said she hasn’t discussed the matter further with them.
A bill introduced this legislative session, which would have made needle exchange programs mandatory at health departments in the state, did not gain traction.
Amjad said she plans to meet with the Cabell-Huntington Health Department officials soon to learn more about their program.
She is accepting donations to help fund the program in Beckley. For more information, call Beckley Pharmacy at 304-256-2006 or Amjad’s clinic at 304-252-5900. Beckley Pharmacy is located at 104 S. Eisenhower Drive in Beckley.
Amjad fears if major steps aren’t taken soon, “There’s not going to be a generation to sit here and talk in 10 to 15 years.”
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