PITTSFIELD >> To combat rising rates of new Hepatitis C and other infections in the area, city officials are considering a proposed needle exchange program.
Board of Health members met Wednesday with Tapestry Health employees who oversee syringe exchange and collection programs in Holyoke and Northampton and are helping to establish one in North Adams, as well as with Jennifer Kimball, a Berkshire Regional Planning Commission health planner and coordinator of the Berkshire Opioid Abuse Prevention Collaborative.
Board members expressed support for the proposal, pending input from Mayor Linda M. Tyer, Police Chief Michael Wynn and other city officials.
The mayor said Thursday that the officials had met at City Hall during the afternoon. For the time being, Tyer said, she will continue to research the proposal, but added, "This was an opportunity for me to learn. I had a lot of questions."
Tyer said she also will talk to city officials in Holyoke and Northampton to learn about their hypodermic syringe exchange programs. 'I want to try to get a sense of what would be the costs and benefits for the city," she said.
No site for a needle exchange facility in Pittsfield has been selected, said Liz Whynott, director of Tapestry's Syringe Access Program. She told the health board that the first step would be for the city to express an interest in a program before applying to the state for funding.
Kimball cited some harrowing statistics concerning Hepatitis C, which she said are "staggeringly high" in Berkshire County. She added that, unlike a similar issue involving syringe users who risk contracting HIV infections through sharing needles, the hepatitis virus is not as fragile and "lives on surfaces much longer than [HIV]," and therefore can be more easily contracted.
For that reason, she said, the risk of hepatitis infections goes beyond people using and sometimes sharing syringes to inject heroin or other drugs, putting members of the general public at risk as well. Among potentially risky behaviors listed in paperwork the officials presented are sharing blood glucose monitoring equipment and failure to adhere to hand hygiene or nail care hygiene practices.
Among statistics she cited were that, since 2010 in Berkshire County, there have been 1,100 cases of Hepatitis C diagnosed, which would mean a countywide rate of 8.7 for every 1,000 residents. As is normally the case with hepatitis, many others are believed to be unaware they have been exposed to the virus.
In 2016 thus far, she said, there have been 150 cases confirmed in the county, 71 of them in Pittsfield. Of the 71 cases diagnosed in Pittsfield, Kimball said 43 people were under the age of 45. In 2015, there were 140 cases in the county, with 55 in Pittsfield, she said, and 36 were under the age of 45.
High rates among baby boomers, some dating from infections in the 1970s, have long been noted, but rates now are rapidly rising among younger generations. "Really, the 18 to 25 age group is where the growth is," Kimball said.
Kimball also stressed that the full impacts of hepatitis are extremely difficult to determine, since "less than 50 percent of those infected actually know their status."
She said a lack of adequate testing and related services is contributing to the problem. Kimball also cited the apparent reluctance of many primary care physicians to routinely offer to test their patients for hepatitis as contributing to that uncertainty.
She noted as well the fact that an initial positive test result must be followed up by a second test from a doctor. Many people addicted to drugs fail to get that second test, she said, sometimes because they experience long waits trying to find a primary care physician.
"People are walking around not knowing their status," she said.
Whynott said that, while Tapestry Health currently has a family planning office on Wendell Avenue in Pittsfield, a needle exchange site likely would be located so it is accessible in reaching those most at risk.
Along with access to new syringes, the health organization also offers other "harm reduction" services, such as education on opioid addiction and the use of naloxone, which can reverse the effects of an overdose; information on health insurance options, referrals for treatment; and testing for sexually transmitted and other diseases.
Needle exchange — as well as used needle collection services, including a discarded syringe hotline — could be added if Pittsfield establishes a program, Whynott said.
Concerning the opioid abuse and overdose crisis facing Massachusetts, Whynott said, "this is a scary time." She cited new statistics released this week that show the number of overdose deaths continues to climb over the first six months of 2016.
All of the health board members, along with city Health Director Gina Armstrong, expressed support for the proposed syringe program, but no vote was taken pending comments from the mayor and other city officials. Armstrong said a meeting with Tyer, the police and fire chiefs and other officials is planned.
The board of health in a community is the designated body that would request a needle exchange program in that city or town, along with state funding. The first step is to file a short statement of support with the state.
"We want to do what we can as a board to help," said Chairwoman Roberta "Bobbie" Orsi.
Contact Jim Therrien at 413-496-6247.