Iowa is seeing rising rates of hepatitis C among people who inject drugs, so state health officials got federal approval to launch a program to distribute clean syringes to drug users, but there’s a problem.
Syringe exchange programs are illegal in Iowa. Randy Mayer, a spokesman for the Iowa Department of Public Health, says they’re preparing to make the case for syringe exchanges to state lawmakers.
Mayer says, “The most important one was to get this determination of need approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which we’ve just recently done.” State lawmakers considered a bill that would legalize syringe exchange programs last year, but it didn’t pass.
The same state report that shows increasing rates of hepatitis C also shows Iowa is at risk for an HIV outbreak among drug users. Mayer says the state hasn’t yet seen HIV diagnoses rise among people who use drugs, but the department is watching closely for that.
“What we have is an avenue for that to occur,” Mayer says. “So, it really just takes the right person to get into that population with untreated HIV infection and that could allow that to happen. So having a syringe services program is one way to try to avoid that.”
Hepatitis C is a blood-borne illness that can cause liver failure. Mayer says the number of diagnosed hepatitis C cases in Iowa has increased more than 200-percent in the past 16 years. Iowa now has about 2,200 people per year getting a diagnosis of hepatitis C. It’s third on the state list of reportable infectious diseases. Mayer warns tens of thousands of Iowans who have hepatitis C are likely not diagnosed.
(Thanks to Katarina Sostaric, Iowa Public Radio)