CHARLESTON, West Virginia (AP) – US Sen. Joe Manchin presented a Congressional investigation Monday with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention into an HIV outbreak in West Virginia’s largest county.
The West Virginia Democrat requested the investigation on behalf of the Kanawha County Commission two months after a CDC official warned that the county’s outbreak was “the most concerning in the United States.”
Commission Chairman Kent Carper said in a statement that the outbreak “is a major public health problem and deserves our full understanding.”
In a letter to CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, Manchin asked that the CDC review the commission’s concerns and respond by Friday.
Later Monday, Manchin released a letter from the CDC saying he was eager to meet with public health officials. He said Dr. Jonathan Mermin, director of the CDC’s National Center for HIV-AIDS, would be included in the meeting.
In early February, Dr. Demetre Daskalakis, CDC’s chief of HIV prevention, gave a presentation at a meeting of the Kanawha County HIV task force.
“The current case count may represent the tip of the iceberg,” Daskalakis said. “There are likely to be many more undiagnosed cases in the community. We are concerned that transmission will continue and that the number of people with HIV will continue to increase unless urgent action is taken. “
The commission’s letter to Manchin asked if the CDC had completed an official investigation into the rise of HIV in the county. The letter said the commission is concerned that statements referring to the outbreak as the most troubling in the nation “are being made without factual and empirical evidence.”
As recently as 2014, only 12.5% of HIV cases in West Virginia were the result of intravenous drug use. By 2019, 64.2% were, according to data from the state health department. The increase was primarily due to clusters in Kanawha and Cabell counties.
Kanawha County, which includes Charleston and has 178,000 residents, had two IV drug-related HIV cases in 2018. The number increased to 15 in 2019 and at least 35 last year, said Shannon McBee, a state epidemiologist.
By comparison, New York City, with a population of more than 8 million, had 36 HIV cases related to intravenous drug use in 2019, according to the CDC. Counties in other states with populations similar to Kanawha had an average of less than one HIV diagnosis among people who inject drugs, Daskalakis said.
The increase, concentrated mainly in the capital of Charleston and the city of Huntington, is attributed at least in part to the cancellation in 2018 of a needle exchange program that offered clean syringes to injection drug users who were unable to quit. completely.
Needle exchange programs are included in the CDC’s recommendations for controlling disease outbreaks among injecting drug users. Such programs exist in dozens of states, but they are not without critics, including in West Virginia, who say they do not do enough to prevent or stop drug abuse.
With less than a week to go until regular session, the state Legislature is considering a bill to regulate needle exchange providers.
The nonprofit Solutions Oriented Addiction Response provides addicts with clean needles in Charleston, and the group shares information about HIV testing with residents, including the homeless. SOAR co-founder Sarah Stone has said the legislation could shut down her group’s syringe exchange program.
Citing the pending state bill, the Charleston City Council postponed a vote on a proposed needle exchange ordinance Monday night until April 19.