A federal HIV health expert characterized a jump in HIV rates in West Virginia’s Kanawha County as the “most concerning in the United States among people who inject drugs,” reports WCHS news.

HIV cases linked to injection drug use increased from two in 2018 to at least 35 in 2020. This compares with 36 in New York City, which has over 8 million more residents than Kanawha County (population: 178,000).

The statistics were shared at the county’s HIV task force during a virtual presentation by Demetre Daskalakis, MD, MPH, the director of the Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention at the National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention.

Kanawha County includes the state capital, Charleston, and is just east of another HIV hot spot in West Virginia: Cabell County, which borders southern Ohio.

The virtual meeting was held as the Charleston City Council debates the pro and cons of a needs-based syringe program, a source of controversy in the region in recent years as injection drug use has increased, reports the Charleston Gazette-Mail

Daskalakis assured the task force that syringe programs are effective, not only at lowering rates of HIV and hepatitis C but also at linking people to care and treatment, including for substance use disorders.

He pointed to the successes of syringe programs in countering a 2015 HIV and hepatitis C outbreak in Scott County, Indiana. (You can read more about that in “Mike Pence’s Delayed Response to HIV Outbreak in Indiana Had Grave Results.”)

Spurred by the Indiana outbreak, the CDC in 2017 warned that 220 other counties in the United States were at risk for similar outbreaks of HIV and hep C driven by injection drug use. Indeed, smaller outbreaks have been reported in Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia, Massachusetts, Seattle, Boston and other locations.

Further merits of syringe programs can be seen closer to Charleston. Cabell-Huntington Health Department officials say a syringe program they operate in Cabell has had great success. Not long ago, Huntington, located in Cabell County, was considered the “overdose capital of America.” For an update on the city, click here.

In related news, read “HIV Task Force Launches in West Virginia Amid Drug Use Concerns” and the recent profile on Daskalakis, “Meet the ‘Queer Health Warrior’ Who’ll Lead Federal HIV Prevention Efforts.

Both Hepatitis C, an infection of the liver, and HIV can be spread through shared needles. To learn more about transmission, prevention and treatments, see the HIV Basics in POZ and the Hepatitis C Basics in HepMag.com.