Controversy, Culture Clashes Surround Needle Exchange Programs in Appalachia


The opioid crisis is one of the biggest public health challenges in our region today. One strategy that’s been proved to help curb the epidemic’s worst effects is to implement harm reduction programs, which include a variety of services. One of the most controversial is a component called needle exchange. 

In this episode of Inside Appalachia, we’ll take an in-depth look at needle exchanges — and what they can mean for their surrounding communities.

Aimed at helping reduce the spread of diseases among people with intravenous drug use disorders, as well as encouraging more people to enter recovery, evidence shows implementing needle exchange programs improves public health. We reported last year on a program in West Virginia’s capital city that was shut down amid public outcry. After that episode aired, we began to hear that people in other communities were questioning the need for similar programs around the state.

To recap: In December 2015, with support from the city of Charleston, the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department launched a harm-reduction program that included a needle exchange. The primary goal was to reduce the risk of needle-borne diseases. The secondary goal was to connect illicit drug users to treatment and recovery services. The program closed a little more than two years after it opened, amid controversy.

The science behind harm reduction programs is unequivocal — these initiatives help save lives and prevent the spread of disease. For harm reduction programs to be successful, however, most public health experts say the residents in the community must support the program.

Also in this episode, we’ll learn how a harm reduction program in Wise County, Virginia, has found success in its first few months.

We will also hear folks in Dayton, Ohio, talk about their stories of loss, love, hope and recovery as we include two Recovery Stories produced by Jess Mador as part of a six-part series by WYSO.

We had help producing this episode of Inside Appalachia from West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s health reporter, Kara Lofton, and WYSO’s Jess Mador, along with Mallory Noe-Payne, from Virginia Public Radio.

Roxy Todd is our producer. Eric Douglas is our associate producer. Our executive producer is Jesse Wright, who also edited this show. Our audio mixer is Patrick Stephens.