By SCOTT MCKIE B.P.
ONE FEATHER STAFF
“Currently, there have been over 600 people diagnosed as positive with Hep C in our community,” Vickie Bradley, EBCI Secretary of Public Health and Human Services (PHHS), told Tribal Council during discussion on a proposed needle exchange program during a regular session of Council on Thursday, June 1.
Legislation was passed to provide preliminary support for the development of a tribal needle exchange program that will be operated and supervised by PHHS.
“Talk is talk is talk,” said Big Cove Rep. Teresa McCoy who submitted the legislation in an effort to curb the current Hep C epidemic in the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. “It’s time for action.”
While on a trip to Washington, DC for the recent Cherokee Days event, Rep. McCoy said she and her family ventured throughout the town and got to witness firsthand a needle exchange program in operation. “I was amazed at the acceptance by the community that was all around them.”
She said community involvement and acceptance of such a program is vital. “We have not yet begun to hit the tip of the iceberg on the amount of Hepatitis C cases on this Boundary. We can’t react every time. Sometimes, we have to be proactive. Sometimes, we have to step up and take control of our situation and be grown up about it and understand this isn’t going away.”
Rep. McCoy added that the program isn’t about encouraging drug use, but about discouraging the spread of diseases such as Hep C. “I think this would curtail the spread of some of those diseases. You cannot keep putting an addict in jail hoping that will fix it.”
Secretary Bradley said she was excited to see the legislation come to the forefront. “The World Health Organization (WHO), the American Medical Association (AMA), and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have proven, through empirical evidence, that a needle exchange program is the only program that will reduce the incidence and prevalence of Hep C.”
She said that needle sticks occurring to public service personnel would be reduced by an average of 66 percent and stated, “An individual participating in a needle exchange program is five times more likely to go into treatment than one not participating in a needle exchange program.”
A 2004 WHO report, entitled “Effectiveness of Sterile Needle and Syringe Programming in Reducing HIV/AIDs Among Injecting Drug Users”, states in its recommendations portion, “The studies reviewed in this report present a compelling case that NSPs (needle and syringe programs) substantially and cost effectively reduce the spread of HIV among IDUs (intravenous drug users) and do so without evidence of exacerbating injecting drug use at either the individual or societal level.”
During Thursday’s discussion on the issue, several tribal leaders showed their support for the program.
Birdtown Rep. Travis Smith commented, “We’ve got to educate the community on what this is and what it’s about. It’s not that we’re saying we’re okay with drug use, but we’re trying to prevent other things that are going along with it.”
Stating that community education is a key component, he also pointed to the economic benefits of the program. “The cost of treating someone with Hepatitis C is around $50,000 a treatment…if we can save that one person from catching Hepatitis C, that pays for a couple of months of the needle exchange. It pays off in the long run.”
Vice Chairman Brandon Jones said the program is “desperately needed” and pointed to a recent news report that spoke to the Hepatitis C epidemic throughout western North Carolina. “Hep C is going to be our biggest battle and our biggest cost at the hospital. It’s probably already right there with diabetes and heart disease, but it will take over, and it’s something we can help.”
Principal Chief Richard G. Sneed noted, “The reality is what we are facing is a public health crisis. Nobody wants to be addicted. Nobody wants to live in that life, but we can’t ignore the fact that we here, locally, have a public health crisis with Hep C already.”
Like other, he praised Rep. McCoy for bringing for the legislation and stated it is a start to solving the problem, “We’re not going to shame people to stopping by putting their picture in the One Feather. Look at the number of times these folks have been arrested, and almost all of them, 90 percent of what we see in the paper, they’re addicted and we have to stop treating addiction as a criminal behavior and start treating it as a public health issue because that’s what it is.”
He added, “I can assure you that the point of this is public health, and we’re trying to protect our children.”
Painttown Rep. Tommye Saunooke said, “It’s good legislation. Nobody wakes up one morning and says ‘I want to be an addict’. They’re still human. They should be treated as such. All of us have been affected in here by the drug addiction. If we pass this, it will begin the process.”
During discussion on the issue, it was decided to bring this program idea back in an ordinance format for next month’s Council so that it would be codified.
Secretary Bradley said her staff will present a full budget for the needle exchange program when PHHS budgets are presented during the Budget Hearings for FY2018. “What you are passing is a brand new program. It’s not just a piece of a program. It’s going to be an expensive program, but one that will ultimately save our community a lot of money, but more importantly, save a lot of lives.”