June Leffler Published

CDC Wraps Investigation Of Kanawha County HIV Crisis

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has wrapped a month-long investigation into the growing HIV crisis in Kanawha County.

After the federal health agency called Charleston’s HIV outbreak the “most concerning in the nation” this year, it offered to help. That came in the form of an Epi-Aid, a short-term but highly involved assessment and assistance. The CDC spent four weeks in June in the capital city to figure out what more local and state health officials can do to slow the spread of HIV.

Federal health workers went out to the streets to interview IV drug users. These people are most at risk of contracting the disease. Almost 75 percent of newly diagnosed HIV cases this year are among people who inject drugs.

The CDC found people often don’t have access to clean needles, which helps prevent the spread of disease caused by needle-sharing, according to a release from the state Department of Health and Human Resources.

The local health department shut down a syringe services program in 2018. Another volunteer, grassroots program came along, but has since stopped its health fairs. Organizers said they stopped the program due to public pressure and a city ordinance tightening restrictions on syringe services. One needle exchange operated by the free clinic Health Right remains in Charleston.

The CDC found many IV drug users said they distrust or are intimidated by the healthcare system. That might explain why most people newly diagnosed with HIV don’t seek out routine treatment.

The CDC found more testing can be done with at-risk groups and in healthcare settings. State data says most new cases of HIV are detected in acute care settings.

The local health department implemented mobile, targeted HIV testing earlier this year. But Kanawha-Charleston Health Department Director Dr. Sherri Young said more can be done.

“We’re looking at ways to expand access to PrEP therapy and to increase HIV testing before individuals present in an acute care setting,” Young wrote.

The CDC’s initial findings were presented to local health providers and the state. The CDC’s full report will be published and available to the public in August.

The state DHHR says the meeting was not open to the public or reporters because the data collection and analysis is still ongoing.

Activists in Charleston are calling on Mayor Amy Goodwin to declare a local public health emergency due to the HIV outbreak.