Advocates for a syringe-exchange program, alarmed by increases in HIV and hepatitis C cases in the city of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, are taking their case to the Hamilton County Public Health Board on April 8. Mostly white male injection drug users are causing the rise in intravenous heroin use. In 2011, Hamilton County recorded 189 drug overdose deaths, primarily from opioids such as heroin and prescription painkillers such as Percocet and OxyContin. In 2012, Hamilton County reported 108 new HIV cases, compared to 65 new cases in 2011.
The advocacy group, Hamilton County Response to the Opioid Epidemic, has worked six years to establish a syringe exchange program, just as Scioto and Cuyahoga counties already have. Dr. Judith Feinberg, a professor at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Medicine and an infectious diseases specialist, declares, “The program would protect the public, reduce infections, and encourage involvement in (addictions) treatment.”
Since 2009, Hamilton County numbers for men’s and women’s hepatitis C cases have risen steadily. The total number of cases in the county is approaching 1,200, the highest since 2005. Hepatitis C case numbers among African Americans has been mainly steady since 2003; however, hepatitis C cases among whites in Hamilton County increased from approximately 200 in 2009 to approximately 500 in 2012. The highest case concentration has occurred in Green and Colerain townships, Norwood, and the city neighborhoods of Westwood, East and West Price Hill, Downtown, Over-the-Rhine, Walnut Hills, and Avondale.
Advocates envision a program using a van that would focus immediately on three neighborhoods: Over-the-Rhine, Westwood, and Lower Price Hill. Heroin users frequently discard used needles in public spaces in those areas, said Adam Reilly, a program advocate and HIV specialist. Cincinnati Health Commissioner Noble Maseru executed an emergency order for a needle-exchange program in February 2012, but neither public health boards nor Maseru has the authority to create a program; only county and city lawmakers can do so. Cincinnati City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr. has opposed the syringe program, citing that possession of drug paraphernalia is illegal.
The Hamilton County Public Health Board will hold its monthly public meeting Monday, April 8, at 6:30 p.m. at 250 William Howard Taft Road, Cincinnati, Ohio. Syringe-exchange program advocates Adam Reilly and Dr. Judith Feinberg will present.