CHARLOTTE, NC — In November, the Mecklenburg County Health Director sounded the alarm over the rate of HIV transmissions in Charlotte, which is almost double the state average.
There's a relatively cheap way to reduce the HIV rate that Mecklenburg County isn't utilizing. The Cabarrus Health Alliance started a needle exchange program so intravenous drug users can turn in old needles and get brand new ones. Clean needles can stop the spread of HIV through drug users sharing.
Once banned from getting public funding, the STOP Act of 2017 now allows "local" taxpayer dollars to fund these exchanges.
In six months, the Health Alliance gave out 4740 needles, but people turned in more. It took in 5663 needles that can no longer pass along HIV or end up discarded on the streets. Needles cost about 50 cents each. The cost to taxpayers to treat a person with HIV for a lifetime is up to about $619,000, which is why program founder Marcella Beam says preventing even one case is worth it.
"Just one puts us in a situation of ensuring taxpayer dollars aren't going to that treatment. But also, that people in our community are safe," Beam explained.
Mecklenburg County has no similar program, but a much greater need. About 6,600 people in Mecklenburg are living with HIV. There were 264 new cases last year alone, and 700 people could be infected and not know it. Four percent were exposed by injecting drugs with needles. But, a whopping 36 percent of patients didn't identify how they got the virus, so intravenous drug users could account for a much larger percentage.
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That's why resident, and nurse, Nick Forney has been exploring the idea of a needle exchange for Mecklenburg. Two of his childhood friends died from heroin overdoses.
"They were just normal people," Forney recalled.
He said he knows drug users will shoot up whether they have clean needles or not.
"My biggest obstacle is getting money for it," he said. "I can do all the other pieces, but I can't pay for it though."
Back in November, Mecklenburg County Health Director Gibbie Harris told commissioners the HIV transfer rate here is alarming and something needs to be done about it. So, we asked her why the county doesn't have a needle exchange program.
"We're looking at the different strategies in those areas, things we need to implement here. A needle exchange is one of the things that's come up in that conversation," Harris said.
Harris told us she's now asking the health department's newly created executive board to create a needle exchange. It would supplement the "prep" program, using the drug Truvada to protect people at high risk for the virus with a daily pill. And, Harris says we also need to treat those who are already infected.
"The opportunity for those people to be well as they live with HIV, and be productive as opposed to a drain on our community, is critical," Harris explained.
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