Getting syringes used by intravenous drug users away from where others might be exposed has become a mission for Bobbi Bratchett of the Portsmouth City Health Department, who wants the public to know about their proposed syringe exchange program, which has received support from the Scioto County Health Department officials and Portsmouth Mayor David Malone.
"Right now we have a 23.7 percent Hepatitis C-positive rate in our area," Bratchett said. "That's not including the prison population. That's only our community. We are five times more likely to contract Hepatitis C than HIV."
Bratchett said it is important for people to know the Health Department is not advocating the illegal use of intravenous drugs, but feels it is important to keep exposure to a minimum, and an exchange program would lower the risk to the public.
"We have had reports of needles being at parks, school steps, sliding boards, in our own alleyways between us," Bratchett said, referring to the alley on Sixth Street next to the Portsmouth Health Department. "Garbage men on sanitation crews have lost man hours being stuck by needles in bags. We have had home inspectors stuck by needles. So the danger for us is that our community is at risk."
Bratchett said because of the work of the Scioto County Prescription Drug Action Team, the availability of illegal prescription pain medications is on the decrease. As pills such as Oxycontin become more difficult to obtain, access to intravenous drugs like heroin becomes easier. And usage then increases.
"So if we have a 23.7 percent positive rate, what is going to happen when they begin sharing (syringes) more?" Bratchett said.
Bratchett said the area has already experienced children being stuck by needles used by their parents.
"Children do not get Hepatitis C," Bratchett said. "It is not a childhood disease. When we had our first case a couple of years ago I panicked. I didn't know what to do, so I called the Liver Foundation in Cleveland, they called the drug reps and the drug reps gave her the names of some excellent specialists. And they said do not walk, run her to a major university where there is a major hospital, and a specialist, because children do not get this."
Bratchett said they were trying to get the child into a research program because experts do not know what the disease will do to a child.
"We're seeing consenting adults doing this. We're seeing more and more teenagers contracting Hepatitis C. And now we've got young children," Bratchett said. "Kids should be able to go down a sliding board and not land on a needle. Walking barefoot in the grass, people on church steps, schools, playgrounds. They have all become unsafe."
Bratchett said, if the program is implemented, users would be able to bring their syringes to the City Health Department and exchange them for new syringes.
"It has always been our goal to serve the public," Bratchett said of the Health Department. "And I don't want the community to misconstrue this as giving permission, but we have to protect from our number of Hepatitis C cases. And, by doing that, we also protect the community. Your kids can once again go down the slide, run barefoot through the grass. Your husband or wife who works on the sanitation crew doesn't have to worry about the bag hitting against their leg, or picking them up and getting stabbed."
Bratchett said Hepatitis C can live on a surface for three to five days. She said people come in contact with it through — among other things — door knobs, shopping carts, public rest rooms, but it is not taking a direct route — that is through the eyes, nose, and mouth, as well as injecting ourselves — but when it is out there and people are exposed to it it could have been there for less than three to five days.
"For people who do have Hepatitis C, I don't want to put up a red flag on them, because they are already out there in the public," Bratchett said. "They're our loved ones, too. They prepare our food in restaurants. They are serving us, and doing all of these things, and I don't want to give the misconception that everyone who has hepatitis C has done drugs, but in today's world, a lot of our society has."
She said casual contact is not the method by which hepatitis C is spread. Those who know they have the virus should keep personal items put away so that they don't get used by other members of their family — items such as razorblades, toothbrushes, nail file clippers, scissors, tweezers, emory boards or similar items — because of the danger they present.
Bratchett said the next step is to take the proposal to the full Health Board, then to take it before City Council, and if it is funded at $750, to immediately began implementing the program. That would provide 750 new syringes at $1 per needle.
"Right now, there is no funding for after-care," Bratchett said. "Once I tell someone they are positive ... good luck. We do have Dr. (Maja) Babic in town we can refer people to, but is just hard because medical cards are not easy to come by."
Bratchett said the easiest way to handle the problem is for someone with five dirty needles, to bring them to the Health Department, and exchange them for five clean needles. She said she expects support from law enforcement when the program is implemented.
"The reason we want the public to know is that we want them to support us in this program," Bratchett said. "If we're the first ones to jump into this, and we're proactive in getting our numbers down, in three years when the Centers for Disease Control puts out money for after-care, who do you think they would give it to? Someone who did it when they saw a need."
FRANK LEWIS may be reached at (740) 353-3101, ext. 232, or firstname.lastname@example.org.