Citing a near doubling in the number of HIV diagnoses associated with injection-drug use, the Ohio Department of Health has asked the federal government for authorization to fund syringe programs with grant money designated for HIV-prevention work.
In 2017, 121 HIV diagnoses across the state were attributed to injection-drug use, about 12 percent of the 1,015 total infections, according to documents dated July 5 that include the request to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s a 92 percent increase over the 63 diagnoses attributed to drug use in 2015, which amounted to 6.7 percent of the 937 diagnoses reported that year.
The request, signed by Director of Health Lance Himes, also refers to a skyrocketing number of hepatitis C infections, which also can be spread through injection-drug use. Further, it notes jumps in deaths attributed to the injectable heroin and fentanyl, an increase in opiate-related admissions to publicly-funded substance-abuse treatment centers and the rising use of syringe programs.
“Our jurisdiction is at-risk for significant increases in viral hepatitis or HIV infection due to injection drug use,” the letter states. “While the state has made progress in the fight against opioid abuse, there is still more to be done to protect and improve the health of all Ohioans.”
Syringe initiatives equip substance users with free, sterile syringes to inject drugs, with some programs requiring clients to submit used syringes to obtain new ones. The goal is to prevent the spread of blood-borne illnesses such as HIV and hepatitis C, which can be spread if a person injects a needle that has already been used by someone who carries an infection.
While advocates say the programs also link substance users with needed health-care, overdose-reversal medications and addiction-recovery services, opponents voice concerns that they promote or enable illegal drug use.
Last month, Dennis Cauchon, who leads the drug-policy advocacy group Harm Reduction Ohio, had criticized the Department of Health for dragging its feet in submitting the request. He called the delay a bureaucratic tactic aimed at preventing syringe programs from accessing any of the roughly $7.6 million in federal HIV-prevention funds the state is expected to receive annually through mid-2022.
Cauchon said on Friday that Himes’ request is “hugely important for Ohio.”
“Syringe programs in Ohio are cash-strapped because the state allows them but provides no money,” Cauchon said Friday. “This will let the state’s federal grant to prevent HIV go where it’s supposed to go, to a super-effective way to prevent the spread of HIV among IV drug users.”
Russ Kennedy, a Department of Health spokesman, said Himes had received a staff proposal to seek the CDC authorization earlier this year and that the department was reviewing whether redirecting HIV-prevention funding would harm current efforts to reduce HIV the state.
“After a thorough review, we are confident the flexibility we are seeking to redirect some federal HIV prevention funding to support allowable expenses of syringe service programs will complement Ohio’s efforts to reduce the incidence of HIV,” he said on Thursday.
He said that the planning process for where the money would go is under way as the department awaits the CDC’s response.
Cauchon said he’s aware of 13 syringe programs across Ohio.
In Columbus, Equitas Health has operated the Safe Point syringe-access program, with oversight by Columbus Public Health, since January 2016.
Late last month, executives said the program faced closure in August if government agencies didn’t provide more funding, prompting Columbus Public Health and the Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Board of Franklin County to make contributions to keep it alive through December.
Local officials say Franklin County has more than 4,300 active heroin users. The Safe Point program served 3,139 people last year and distributed more than 1.2 million syringes.
Himes notes in the CDC letter that 33 states and territories, including all the states that border Ohio, have previously been approved to use HIV-prevention funds for syringe programs.
“Ohio is prepared to join its bordering states in this mission to equip our communities with necessary resources and reduce the number of new HIV and Hepatitis C infections.”