Public health emergency declared over hepatitis C epidemic in Marion County; needle exchange sought

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Calling it an epidemic, Marion County Public Health Director Dr. Virginia Caine declared a public health emergency for hepatitis C during a news conference Thursday morning.

Caine said hepatitis C comes from the sharing and reusing of needles. She said there were 1,000 new cases last year with 86% of those related to drug use. At least 60% of those infected admitted to sharing needles, she said.

Caine is calling for a needle exchange program to prevent the spread of the disease, which she called "an imminent threat" to public health.

"Such a program is medically necessary and it will save lives," she said, noting that such a program would slow the spread of hepatitis C and HIV.

She pointed to the successful implementation of a needle exchange in Scott County, where more than 1,000 people have participated and approximately 95% of needles were returned. She referred to it as "an incredible success."

Seven counties--Monroe, Scott, Fayette, Allen, Tippecanoe, Clark and Wayne--operate such programs under Indiana law permitting those initiatives without state approval, while Madison County wavers on reinstating its previous needle exchange efforts.

"All have led to positive impact for public health," Caine said of the exchange programs. "The program that we are proposing is more than a safe needle exchange."

She said the program will include services like rapid drug screenings, immunizations and addiction help. Mental health treatment, doctor referrals and access to health care programs would also serve as pillars of the program. She also said providing safe needles would potentially reduce risky behaviors by as much as 80%.

"We really want to catch you before you have that overdose," Caine said.

Caine said the approval process would begin Monday in the City-County Council. She said the response from councilors has been positive so far.