Over the last few years, transmission of hepatitis C virus (HCV) in some rural areas of Alaska has increased by nearly 500 percent. Meanwhile, opioid addiction and drug overdoses continue to ravage the state. In response, Alaskan health officials are pushing for a major expansion of syringe exchange access across the region, according to NPR.
As detailed by the radio report, the Alaska AIDS Assistance Association (known locally as Four A’s) currently runs one of just four syringe exchanges in the state. The sites distribute clean needles to injection drug users in order to reduce the transmission of blood-borne illnesses like HIV and hepatitis C. The agency says it recently instated a 50-needle limit for clients in order to keep up with surging demand.
State surveillance reports show that new HCV infections among Alaskan injection drug users ages 18 to 29 nearly doubled between 2011 and 2015. Health officials estimate that to treat all Alaskans who contracted hepatitis C from injecting drugs in 2015 would cost up to $90 million. And last year, prescription painkillers and heroin accounted for 74 percent of Alaska’s drug overdose deaths.
Harm reduction advocates explain that, according to studies, syringe exchanges can be extremely cost-effective for reducing the long-term health consequences of addiction — especially with regard to preventing people from getting and spreading hep C. Recently, Jay Butler, chief medical officer for Alaska’s health department, started pressing for more access to clean needles across the state, especially in rural areas.
The move may not only reduce the state’s HCV crisis but also potentially save the state’s health system millions of dollars. Advocates of Butler’s recent push say the cost of curing one person with new hep C meds (which can cost up to $94,000 for a standard course of treatment) could allow places like Four A’s to run nearly a full year of their syringe exchange services. These locations can also help screen people for hepatitis C and refer drug users to substance abuse treatment when they’re ready to stop injecting.
Though it’s still unclear how Alaskan health officials intend to improve syringe exchange access across the state, many embroiled in the region’s ongoing opioid crisis say even discussing the option is a step in the right direction.