CHARLESTON, WV (WOWK) — The opioid epidemic in West Virginia has left an HIV outbreak in its wake, and Kanawha County is a testament to this.
It’s even drawn national attention from the Centers for Disease Control, which called it “the most concerning outbreak in the nation.”
According to the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, within the last year, there have been 11 new HIV cases in Kanawha County, bringing the total number of new cases to 60 over the past three years.
Health providers on the frontlines say it’s not just a problem for an isolated demographic, but a problem for the entire community.
Christine Teague, director of the CAMC Ryan White Program has been working with the AIDS community for decades.
By now she’s administered thousands of HIV “rapid tests” where results are ready in under 10 minutes.
They are sometimes are reactive — or positive — and she has the difficult task of relating this to the patient.
In the worst case she can remember, Teague says the man went through every emotion possible in about five minutes.
“It was a state of shock, disbelief, frustration, sadness, and then embarrassment,” said Teague.
She says she didn’t see him again for eight months after that.
HIV is non-discriminatory.
While it first came to national attention among gay men in the ’80s, it has since shifted into other demographics: hemophiliacs, like 11-year old Ryan White who contracted the virus through a blood transfusion, pregnant women who passed it onto their infants, sex workers, heterosexuals and most recently in Kanawha County, IV drug users.
Prior to 2018, Teague says less than five people contracted HIV through injecting needles or drug use, in 2019 that number was 15, in 2020 that number was 37 — doubling.
“Now that it has gotten into other groups that are mainly being spread through blood transmission, the concern is that now it can also go back into other groups because we know that injecting drug users also have sex,” she says.
One Charleston resident 13 News spoke with who wants to remain anonymous says the help he has received through Covenant House and other organizations changed his life after he found out he had HIV.
A longtime drug user, he says he ended up in prison.
“I was real skinny and sickly looking and I told them to test me for everything and it came back that I had HIV and I was like ‘wowww,’ I never thought it would happen to me,” he said.
He believes he contracted the virus through needle use.
“You don’t even think about the possibility of catching nothing, all you’re worried about is getting that dope in your body,” he said.
The virus is now undetectable in his blood tests after getting on medication and he wants his friends to know that help is out there.
“There are so many resources for people who are sick like this in Charleston, they’ve helped me so, so much,” he says.
But the COVID-19 pandemic caused many health providers like West Virginia HealthRight to put their HIV outreach efforts on hold.
The pandemic, however, didn’t stop the HIV virus.
“During covid, people couldn’t get into treatment centers, treatment centers were on lockdown; we had a lot of people unemployed, but we also had a lot of stimulus checks coming in and then there were a lot of mental health issues that can contribute to drug use,” said Angie Settle, CEO of West Virginia HealthRight.
As we come out of the pandemic, local HIV treatment and prevention programs are ramping up their HIV education and outreach efforts, going into tent cities and other places where they can meet face-to-face with the high-risk population.
“The strategies to curbing the epidemic are getting to where the people are, getting them tested, getting them to on meds, getting them to undetectable,“ says Teague.
As the city of Charleston moved to outlaw clean needle exchange programs earlier this year, the health providers are trying to push other prevention strategies like HIV “prep” medication which when taken daily prevents the contraction of the virus altogether.
The main challenge, however, continues to be spreading the message that help is out there and reaching the high-risk population.
“You have people, they’re diagnosed, and they know that they have it and you offer them a ride right then and there to get on medication and they refuse, so it’s a different ball game for a lot of health care providers,” said Settle.
The experts say that’s the nature of addiction.