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Devils Lake health experts propose needle exchange

DEVILS LAKE — A regional health unit is educating the community and collaborating with partners to develop a needle exchange program to help slow the spread of hepatitis C.

Allen McKay, administrator of the Lake Region District Health Unit, said the plan was prompted by a 2016 community health needs assessment — conducted along with CHI St. Alexius Health Devils Lake Hospital — which found a high amount of drug and opioid abuse in the health district's four counties: Ramsey, Benson, Eddy and Pierce.

The second factor driving the exchange is a high rate of hepatitis C, McKay said.

Forty-two percent of the people screened by the health unit were found to have hepatitis C, an infection of the liver caused by the hep C virus. About 3.5 million people in the United States have the disease, according to the WebMD website.

"The hepatitis C rate is skyrocketing because of people sharing needles," McKay said. "When they do that, they transfer the disease, and it's spreading very fast."

Building support

McKay said health professionals are taking it slow so far because they want to make sure they have support from the community, law enforcement and medical partners.

"We can't do it alone. We need to have collaboration from everybody in the community, and we have to explain how it's going to work," he said.

"There's controversy when you start giving away needles to people who use drugs."

McKay said he has no timeline for when the program might be implemented, but he said organizers already are exploring how it might be funded. No state or federal dollars can be used to purchase the needles, he said.

Health officials now are assessing just how many needles are in circulation in the region to estimate how many needles might be necessary for the program.

"Some (drug users) are buying from pharmacies. Some are getting them from people who inject themselves as part of their medical treatment. Some are getting them from people they know," McKay said. "They're getting them any way they can. It doesn't matter whether they are used or not, and that's the big issue."

McKay said a needle exchange in which people turn in used needles for new ones can be a tough sell for people who do not use illegal drugs, but he said national studies have shown the programs do lower hepatitis C rates.

"This will not have that much of an effect on drug use. When they come to pick up their needles, we will be providing whatever education we can," he said. "But the endgame here is to bring that hepatitis C rate down. We're trying to do disease control."

Besides drug use and shared needles, hepatitis C can be spread through sex — especially if a person has an STD, an HIV infection or several partners — and also by a mother to child during birth.

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