Can a Needle Exchange Program Work in Huntington?

Cabell Huntington Health Department

The Cabell-Huntington Health Department is set to make history in the state of West Virginia Wednesday, with the first needle exchange program. 

The Project

The new project is a one year pilot program that allows IV drug users to exchange used needles for new clean ones. The hope is to help reduce the number of users who share needles with each other – because that can mean sharing blood-borne diseases. Those wanting to make the exchange will be seen in clnic area where patients are seen throughout the week for STD and TB testing among other things.

As of now the syringe exchange program will operate on Wednesday afternoons from 1-3. When a needle user arrives they’ll fill out paperwork assessing their situation and their need for clean needles. But the program aims to keep the users anonymous and will only move them on to other services if they request them. Heather Wood is a Nurse Practitioner at the health department. 

Health Department Fliers on Hep B & C

Credit Clark Davis / WV Public Broadcasting
WV Public Broadcasting

“We don’t want it to be stigmatized as something that’s bad, we want people to be healthy no matter what their choices are, bad choices or not and we try to get them away from those eventually, but in the meantime we try to keep them safe,” Wood said.

The hope is that the syringe exchange program can decrease the number of hepatitis and HIV cases in the region, by providing clean needles for drug use.  The needle exchange program is part of a greater effort called harm reduction.

On the surface it looks as if health officials are enabling continued drug use, but in fact when those making the exchanges come into the health department they’ll be provided with other services such as counseling with the hope that can lead to recovery. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 8,000 people contract HIV each year in the United States from sharing dirty syringes, and 17,000 people contract Hepatitis C. And overdoses of opioid drugs like heroin and prescription painkillers are the leading cause of accidental death in the country. 


Emma Roberts works for the Harm Reduction Coalition from New York City. She and a colleague trained Huntington officials four days over a couple of weeks in July on how to begin the harm reduction program and what to expect. She travels the country providing training to organizations starting syringe access programs in their region.

“For me having worked in syringe exchange access, it’s really reengaging people into services, people who feel ashamed of their drug use, they feel very stigmatized and isolated and their community has isolated them because they’re very fearful of it and understandably so,” Roberts said. “So being able to re-engage them in services is the first step on the ladder to recovery, because if you’re isolated and out there you’re not getting any help or resources.” 

Cabell Huntington Health Department Entrance

Credit Clark Davis / WV Public Broadcasting
WV Public Broadcasting

  Roberts said it’s about getting addicts into the building and creating a relationship with them that can lead to rehab treatment, education on what they’re doing to themselves and other services that could begin to change them. 

“People’s drug use meets very important needs at certain times in their lives especially if they’ve experienced trauma, so having only one or two treatment options doesn’t work for everyone,” Roberts said. “So harm reduction has been shown for many to help them on their road to treatment in the meantime, because not everyone can stop straight-away.”


Various organizations have released information regarding needle exchange programs similar to the one being launched in Huntington. 

  • Office of the Surgeon General: Syringe Access programs are the most effective HIV prevention tool for people who use drugs.
  • National Institutes of Health Study: Needle exchange programs have shown a reduction in risk behaviors as high as 80 percent in intravenous drug users. 
  • Center for Disease Control: In March of 2009, there were 184 syringe exchange programs in 36 steates, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. 

Next Step

The Cabell-Huntington Health Department has applied for several grants to expand the program. They hope to hear more in the fall. If they receive the grants they’ll add days and locations.  The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources provided $10,000 to launch the program and another $10,000 for technical assistance. In addition to that private donations have helped get the program started.