Public health advocates are urging lawmakers to approve needle exchange programs for drug addicts. University of Iowa medical student Sarah Ziegenhorn,  a leader in the Iowa Harm Reduction Coalition, addressed a legislative committee examining the opioid crisis.

“There are 36 states that currently operate syringe exchange programs,” she said. “There are 19 that have had to go about the process in the way Iowa will need to go about the process to create them and that is to modify our existing drug paraphernalia laws.”

A study by the Iowa Harm Reduction Coalition concludes that over the last four years, nearly 60-percent of Iowans seeking treatment for opioid abuse use needles to inject heroin. And addicts share needles, so the number of hepatitis C cases is spiking, too.  Iowa’s Republican governor plans to hold meetings on the opioid crisis next week. According to Ziegenhorn. 16 states with Republican governors or Republican-led legislatures have recently enacted needle exchange programs.

“They did it because with they were facing crises really similar to our own with unprecedented levels of hep C infection and opioid crises,” Ziegenhorn said.

The Department of Public Health reports that 2200 Iowans are being diagnosed with hepatitis C each year. That’s an increase of more than 200-percent over the last 16 years. Tens of thousands more are likely infected with hepatitis C, but not diagnosed.

(Reporting by Iowa Public Radio’s Joyce Russell)