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Here's how clean needles are saving lives in the heroin capital of the US



WATCH  | The United States is fighting an epidemic of heroin and opioid abuse. And Huntington, West Virginia is Ground Zero.

WARNING: Adult languageOverdoses are just one problem

The city of Huntington had more than 900 overdoses last year, with an overdose death rate that is almost 10 times the national average.

Just last month, there were 27 heroin overdoses in a four-hour span. 

The heroin epidemic has also ignited a public health crisis. Huntington has the most cases of Hepatitis B in the nation, the second-highest rate of Hepatitis C and faces an HIV epidemic.

Hepatitis kills more people in this country than any other infectious disease. There's a cure for hepatitis but it's $84,000.
Huntington's Deputy Fire Chief Jan Rader

'All kinds of medical complications'

"Because heroin is injected into their veins and they share needles, there are all kinds of medical complications," says Huntington's Deputy Fire Chief Jan Rader, also a registered nurse who runs a team of emergency first responders.

These are people like you and I that have fallen on bad times and they needed to be treated with respect and given hope.
Jan Rader

'Not evil people'

On a normal week, Rader says Huntington first responders deal with about 20 overdose calls. But Rader remains sympathetic to the people those crews fight to keep alive.

"These are not bad people, these are not evil people," Rader says. 

A familiar crisis

The crisis in Huntington is increasingly familiar to paramedics, firefighters and police officers across the United States.

Just last year, almost 200 people were diagnosed with HIV in the small town of Austin, Indiana, largely because people were sharing needles.

In January, Congress lifted a 30-year ban on federal funding for needle exchanges, allowing for more drug users to get free sterile needles and help prevent the spread of disease.

Needle exchange progress

The first needle exchange programs in America were developed in the mid-1980s to stem the spread of AIDS, but funding dried up when opponents argued that providing free IV injection supplies only makes it easier to stay addicted.

But attitudes are changing.

To combat the rising levels of infectious diseases, Huntington last year instituted West Virginia's first  program to replace used needles with sterile ones. The program distributed more than 150,000 needles to more than 1,600 patients.

When we first started it, about 23 percent of the people admitted to sharing needles.
Crime analyst Scott Lemley

Signs of success

Huntington Police crime analyst Scott Lemley said that one year later, the needle exchange program is already showing signs of success.

"They just resurveyed the people coming in and that number is down to 8. So we're going to see a drop in Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, and HIV."Epidemic cost

The potential drop in infectious disease could potentially relieve a serious burden on taxpayers. Medical experts estimate that Cabell County spent approximately $90 million on health care costs due stemming from complications of addiction.

Officials are also praising the program's ability to direct drug users into recovery. Since the program started, a number of people who came to the exchange to get clean needles have since entered into recovery.

This Aug. 28, 2016 photo shows the Marcum Terrace public housing complex in Huntington, W.Va. Police believe the drugs which caused a series of overdoses were distributed in and around the Marcum Terrace public housing complex, a neighborhood at the heart of the city's long battle with drugs. Most of those who overdosed did so in the complex or in the surrounding neighborhood. (AP Photo/Claire Galofaro)

"Everyone thinks it's about the syringe. Actually it's about all the other wrap-around services that you provide," Lemley said.

"It's about the education, it's about the training, it's about offering people help."

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