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Study shows how Kentucky expanded syringe services programs

A needle exchange program at the Austin Community Outreach Center in Austin, Ind., is aimed at stopping spread of HIV.
Darron Cummings
Associated Press
A needle exchange program at the Austin Community Outreach Center in Austin, Ind., is aimed at stopping spread of HIV.

A Kentucky Department for Public Health study shows the number of syringe services programs has more than doubled and overall visits have soared in recent years, after the state Legislature legalized such initiatives.

“I think ultimately that Kentucky SSPs have been doing just amazing work over time since they've been implemented in 2015. This is a really effective way to meet the needs of people who use and inject drugs,” said Oshea Johnson, a co-author of the report who works as a Lexington-based employee of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

SSPs provide free, sterile syringes to people who use drugs and safely dispose of old needles. They also offer other services, such as screening for infectious diseases, and connect visitors to treatment for substance use disorder.

The state report reviewed trends in Kentucky’s SSPs between 2018 and 2022. Johnson presented the study’s findings Thursday at a CDC conference in Atlanta.

The research found:

  • The number of SSPs doubled from 27 programs to 56.
  • The number of unique clients visiting the SSPs rose 125%, with more than 26,000 visitors in 2022.
  • Clients may go to an SSP more than once, and that’s reflected in the data. The number of overall visits ballooned from almost 22,350 in 2018 to nearly 108,200 in 2022.
  • Distribution of naloxone, the opioid overdose reversal medication, rose 1,456% at Kentucky SSPs.
  • The number of HIV tests given at SSPs rose 446%, and hepatitis C virus tests increased 53%.

SSPs are a public health tool that can significantly reduce the spread of HIV and viral hepatitis among people who use drugs.

A CDC assessment performed several years ago found 54 of Kentucky’s 120 counties were especially vulnerable to potential HIV and hepatitis C outbreaks.

Johnson told LPM News such at-risk counties implemented SSPs “as a strategy to not only combat drug use in their communities, but also combat this vulnerability.”

“And so it shows that counties are doing the best type of work that they can to meet the needs of their communities,” he said.

SSPs are a long-standing, evidence-based harm reduction practice. However, it has been difficult over the years to get public officials to buy into the concept. That’s changing in some places, as demonstrated by Kentucky's legalization and gradual embrace of SSPs.

“Getting SSPs approved in Kentucky was a historic feat for the state,” Johnson said during his conference presentation in Atlanta.

While the state’s study tracked data through 2022, Johnson said the number of SSPs in Kentucky has kept growing, with 84 now operating in 65 counties.
Copyright 2024 Louisville Public Media. To see more, visit Louisville Public Media.

Morgan is WFPL's health reporter. Email Morgan at
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