PORTSMOUTH, Ohio (WSAZ) -- With the heroin epidemic running rampant, syringe-exchange programs are becoming more popular. The Scioto County needle exchange has been operating for about four years now, and health officials say they're seeing results.
"We gave out about 85,000 syringes last year in Scioto County," said public health nurse Lisa Roberts, "We exchanged clean for dirty. And last month, we had a record-breaking month."
In February, 10,712 needles were exchanged -- the most the program has seen in one month.
Roberts also gave WSAZ a breakdown of needles exchanged each year:
- 2012 -- 22,000
- 2013 -- 34,000
- 2014 -- 48,261
- 2015 -- 85,891
- 2016 (Jan. and Feb.) -- 19,497
"We're just trying really hard to keep them from acquiring deadly communicable diseases and spreading it to other people," Roberts said. "Keep in mind, the syringe exchange is not going to solve the problem. It's one tool as part of a comprehensive package that needs to happen that really isn't being done. There's not enough treatment to go around."
The program aims to prevent the spread of diseases such as Hepatitis C. Roberts said there has been a big decrease in the infection rate of Hep C over the past year.
In 2014 there were 437 cases of Hep C, and in 2015 there were 261 cases -- a decrease of about 40 percent.
"It's a good sign, but it's too early to say that it's a great sign," Roberts said. "But what we do know is that the people who participate in our program are not sharing their needles with other people so we're containing that spread, which is very important."
Despite the drop in Hep C cases, Roberts said she is still very concerned about the outbreak of diseases. Earlier this year the Centers for Disease Control highlighted the counties across the country that are at risk for an HIV outbreak. HIV is often associated with cases of Hepatitis C, Roberts said.
"You can see that southern Ohio, much of Kentucky and much of West Virginia is in that high risk area for an HIV outbreak," Roberts said.
Another concern, Roberts said, is that there was a recent HIV outbreak just 200 miles away in Indiana. Roberts said the disease can easily spread geographically.
"We've already seen a pretty bad outbreak relatively close to our area related to IV drug use," Roberts said. "This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of IV drug users, and we're not reaching them with syringe exchange programs in America."
To get a better idea of what they're dealing with, the CDC now plans to set up sites in two of the areas in the country most at risk for an HIV outbreak: New Mexico and Ohio.
Joshua Shepherd, a counselor for the Scioto County needle exchange and a peer navigator out of the University of Cincinnati, said he will be working with the CDC on the two-year research study.
"This means for Scioto County that we're going to be able to have our voice heard," Shepherd said. "It's going to inform the CDC about our county and the problems we're facing because of the poverty. Because of the people being on different insurances like Medicaid and the restrictions they're having to getting treatment. Or some people are just outright being refused treatment because it's so expensive."
Shepherd will also work on the research in Lawrence, Pike and Adams counties, but he will be based in Scioto County. The research will begin in April, he said.
The needle exchange program hits close to home for Shepherd. He is in recovery himself and has been sober for 13 years now.
"This is why I have a passion for this field and these people because I am one of those people," Shepherd said. "I have been there and I have been at the bottom of, you know, trapped in addiction and feeling totally helpless. Somebody reached out and helped me so now it gives me a chance to pay it forward and to reach out and help other people."
He said it is bittersweet working for the program. It's sad to see drug users still struggling with addiction, he said, but it gives them the opportunity to seek help.
"I would love to see us have more resources available to where we could do it more than one day a week or have more than one site," Shepherd said. "Unfortunately, right now we're obviously limited by funding and resources so we work with what we can get."
The program is not funded by taxpayer money, according to Shepherd, but just donations.
He said they have been taking thousands of needles off the streets and out of parks, making the community more safe. With the county's Hep C infection rate dropping and the number of needles exchanged increasing, Shepherd said it is a sign that more people are seeking help like he did.
"Being involved in a program like this, I hope that some of the people that I shared my story with, they have hope and they realize that there is life after addiction," Shepherd said. "You can beat this disease. But it really is one step, one day at a time and just really reaching out for help -- realizing that their situation isn't totally hopeless. Nobody's hopeless until they're dead. So if you're still breathing, you can get better and you can beat this."