Marion County syringe-exchange program ready to hit the road

In the war against the hepatitis C epidemic, Marion County health officials are pulling out their newest weapon: a mobile health unit that will roam the city, offering clean syringes in exchange for dirty ones.

The customized vehicle, about the size of a small school bus, will also be equipped with laboratory and medical supplies, and will offer health screenings and educational information, along with syringes.

The county’s public health department unveiled the vehicle Wednesday, the latest effort to put a dent in the soaring rate of hepatitis C. Reported cases in the county rose from 0.6 to 7.6 per 100,000 people between 2013 and 2017, with much of the rise due to the opioid epidemic.

Last summer, the health department declared an epidemic of hepatitis C, an often-deadly liver diseases linked to injection drug use and dirty syringes. The City-County Council later approved the county’s first-ever syringe-exchange program in an effort to boost public health and increase public safety.

Dr. Virginia Caine, the county’s public health director, said syringe services can increase treatments, reduce health care costs and prevent the spread of infectious diseases.

“The time is now for Marion County to step forward and take action for the health of residents and the community,” she said.

In 2017, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged state and local health departments to improve access to syringe-exchange programs, saying the sharing of dirty needles is a “horrifyingly efficient route for spreading HIV, hepatitis and other infections.”

Several other Indiana cities and counties have already instituted syringe exchange programs, including Bloomington, Lafayette, Allen County, Madison County and Wayne County.

The Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation awarded a $1.45 million grant to support the syringe program, including lab and medical supplies.

Supporters say the programs typically pay for themselves many times over in better health care for the community, and can reduce the the risk of serious infection, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per patient to treat. Hepatitis C can cost about $60,000 for a 12-week treatment. The lifetime cost of treating someone with HIV can be hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Initially, the mobile unit will visit two locations in east-side neighborhoods: the Damien Center, an AIDS service organization, one evening a week, and Brookside Community Church one afternoon a week. Later, the truck could make stops in other neighborhoods, based on recommendations from police and health officials.

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