Wild, Wonderful Infectious Diseases: New WV Slogan is Catching

From the great brain trust of West Virginia, it’s elected officials and their “Ok Google, what’s the shortest path to Almost Hell West Virginia” ilk, comes a wonderful new express lane for getting there. In Health department suspends needle-exchange portion of harm reduction clinic, The Gazette-Mail—The Charleston, WV based newspaper burdened with the soul-crushing task of keeping us informed regarding the antics and hijinks of our seemingly brain-damaged state capital—gives us a look at the brilliant plan to reduce crime and start a new epidemic from Police Chief Steve Cooper and Mayor Danny Jones. Ill-contented with the pace of our state’s race to last place in everything, Cooper and Jones have apparently made it their mission to manipulate policy intended to facilitate discretion, common sense, and flexibility in implementing harm reduction efforts, choosing instead to eradicate the intelligent efforts to keep people alive and healthy. Can’t say these two are soft on crime, they are rock hard on property theft, and they are gleeful at the opportunity to shove their drooling members into public health to prove that virility.

  • Fact, WV has a drug problem of epidemic proportions.
  • Fact, one of the more common methods of drug use is intravenous, drugs injected through needles into veins.
  • Fact, the harder it is for people who use drugs to get clean needles, the higher the likelihood of needle reuse and needle sharing.
  • Fact, one of the easiest ways to acquire several infections is through needle reuse and sharing.
  • Fact, criminalizing possession of drug paraphernalia increases the likelihood that people who use drugs intravenously will reuse needles, hide or frantically discard their paraphernalia, and be less forthcoming about possessing paraphernalia. This not only increases the likelihood of accidental sticks to emergency responders, increasing the risk that those sticks will result in an infection—and increases the likelihood that dirty needles frantically discarded in public (for fear of possession of drug paraphernalia charges) will wind up sticking you or someone you know.
  • Fact, clean needle programs are the only proven method of reducing the transmission of infections between two or more people who use intravenous drugs.
  • Fact, clean needles programs are the only proven method of reducing the number of accidental stick infections among law enforcement and health care providers when interacting with people who use intravenous drugs.
  • Fact, clean needle programs dramatically improve community health, not just for people who use drugs, but for the community at large. The more we can connect people who use drugs to rehabilitation, the more we can prevent needle reuse and sharing, the more we can treat and prevent, and in some cases cure or suppress, disease, the healthier our communities become.
  • This is not new, bleeding edge, information. It’s not some radical theory or random opinion. This is literally decades of science, medical research, concrete knowledge about how the world works, viruses and bacteria spread, communities end up in—or, oh what’s the word I’m looking for, oh yeah AVOID—epidemics. It’s not wishful thinking, it’s not some crack pipe induced dream, it’s not some pass the peace pipe nonsense. This is how you kill or save lives. This is how communities flourish or fail.

Time and time again, communities that have disregarded these facts and instead focused on the “optics” of clean needle programs, or worse, chosen to focus on changes in property-related crime statistics, have found themselves with not one but two epidemics. The original drug epidemic, which was not somehow fixed through moral superiority, thoughts, and prayers, a surprise to everyone who wasn’t an expert or literate. And the second epidemic in public health. That epidemic consisting of skyrocketing rates of new HIV, Hepatitis A/B/C, Herpes, Gonorrhea, Chlamydia, Syphilis, and MRSA (a drug-resistant strain of Staphylococcus, commonly staph) infections. This isn’t an exhaustive list, it’s just some of the more common and problematic issues that occur. Communities that ignore these facts will—not may but WILL—see an ever-growing percentage of its entire population become sick. People who use drugs, emergency and first responders, cookie baking grandmas, adorable children, elected officials, people who shroud themselves in the delusion that they have nothing to do with “the drug problem.” We do not live, work, play, love, eat, swim, etc. in a vacuum.

Viruses and bacteria do not target “bad people” and exclude “good people,” they are opportunistic, every living human body is a perfect opportunity, a perfect home. West Virginia, specifically Kanawha County and  the city of Charleston, are not just throwing out welcome mats to the subset of the community use  intravenous drugs, they are rolling out the red carpet, putting their best foot forward, bending over backwards to ensure that these viruses and bacteria are warmly welcomed into every vein in the state.

Got a vein? Good, come to West Virginia, get a communicable disease! Take some home with you, share it with your friends and family.

Just think how great it will be for our tourism, I mean, who doesn’t want to go to a place where there’s widespread and rampant life-threatening illness lurking around every corner and a hamstrung public health department that can only report the butcher’s bill of infections, not do anything to prevent them?

We are incapable of insulating ourselves from people who use drugs and “their” health problems and living amongst other in a community. Drug use is not some moral failing that we can shun our way out of, we can’t look the other way and wait for it to go away. This is West Virginia, this a problem we, every citizen of this state, must face. Whether you use drugs or not. The health issues that come with intravenous drug use are a problem that poses a risk to everyone’s health.  Your children and grandchildren are at risk, your parents and grandparents are at risk, your elected officials are at risk, your pastor or minister is at risk, your neighbor is at risk. Anyone and everyone you know is at risk. Go to your bathroom, look in your mirror, the person you see looking back at you is at risk. Now look that person in the eye and tell them you don’t care if they get sick from preventable diseases. Now go out into the world and start telling everyone you meet the same thing. Because if you’re supporting these policies, if you’re remaining silent because you don’t think it affects you, that’s exactly what you’re saying.

If you have a pulse and are above ground, that’s all it takes to be a hospitable environment for these health issues. While those risks are lower as you become further removed from the more explicit routes of transmission (intravenous drug use, sex without a condom, etc.), no one has a zero risk. We live in communities and share not only in the benefits of their features and amenities but in their pitfalls as well. We share responsibility for the health, and sickness, of each other.

Ultimately, as members of a community, we live together or die together. Your health can affect my health, and mine can affect yours. West Virginia must choose better. Support science over alternative facts, support evidence-based public health programs over “optics,” support meaningful health initiatives. Do so boldly, loudly. Cry out like you’re screaming for your life. You are, against a state that is supporting public health policies that kill.