WILMINGTON — Soon there may be a van filled with people, flyers, viral screenings, condoms and clean syringes to combat the spread of Human Immunodeficiency Virus and reportedly rising numbers of Hepatitis-C in Clinton County through testing, information and condom distribution and a needle exchange.
Jesse Littleton is suggesting a “mobilized drug outreach harm reduction system” that could circulate through Clinton County, test people for Hepatitis-C and HIV, provide one new needle in exchange for a used one that is then disposed of and distribute information and condoms.
For those for whom the name sounds familiar, Littleton sings and writes songs under the name “Gran Bel Fisher,” and he owns and is creative director of Elm Street Creative Studios, the company that is conceptualizing the program. His family owns Littleton Funeral Home and Littleton Respiratory Homecare.
The goal, Littleton said, would be to reduce the harm done by those needles to addicts and others as well as to educate users, their family members and the community about possible solutions for drug addiction.
“These people are alone and they don’t have anyone to reach out to,” said Littleton. “They’ve burned everyone in their family … and they need to be able to come out and know that their community cares about them.
“The stuff is quicksand. As soon as they get into it, it’s killing them,” Littleton continued, adding that he’s lost close friends and neighbors to heroin.
If successful, Littleton said, the program could reduce theft, fatal car accidents and reduce the cost, both public and private, of caring for those with Hepatitis-C or HIV as well as the chance of someone catching one of those diseases from an accidental needle stick.
Littleton said he wants to reduce the harm done by drugs before users are arrested, taken to court or before they overdose, ending up in the hospital or dying.
“Without it [a harm reduction effort], these people are lost,” Littleton said.
Clinton County Sheriff Ralph D. Fizer Jr. has mixed feelings about the program. On one hand, he applauds efforts to have people tested for Hepatitis-C and HIV.
“I think those are very good programs because if a person (knows) they have hepatitis or some other kind of disease, there’s always a possibility that they may be more careful,” Fizer told the News Journal.
But, he sees a needle exchange as a “catch-22.”
“Yeah, you’re cleaning up some dirty needles, but you’re also promoting them to go ahead and shoot up,” he said. “I don’t agree with the program because I think it sends the wrong message.”
Fizer agreed with Littleton that heroin users will likely inject themselves with or without a clean needle, “but I don’t want to be part of helping them out.
“However, I understand why they’re doing it – to get rid of dirty needles,” which could stick, and infect, innocent people.
Tommy Koopman with Mental Health Recovery Services of Warren and Clinton Counties said strategies to reduce harm, like the one proposed by Littleton, “are a necessary component of any comprehensive plan to address intravenous drug use, such as heroin.”
Koopman said research shows that effective harm reduction strategies reduce the number of consequences that accompany intravenous drug use, notably the spread of disease.
“Clinton County has seen a staggering increase in the number of new Hepatitis-C cases over the last few years,” said Koopman. “Though I do not have the data on it, I’m certain that HIV will be doing the same, if it isn’t already. Based on the data regarding Hepatitis-C and HIV, I’m certain that Clinton County could benefit from an effective harm reduction strategy.”
However, Koopman said, he isn’t sure there’s enough information about Littleton’s proposed program to know if it will be effective.
“For any program like this, it is important to make sure that all of the necessary community partners are collaborating to ensure success,” Koopman said, noting that those partners could include MHRS, the Clinton County Health Department, law enforcement, Clinton Memorial Hospital and others. “While the program needs a community champion like Jesse Littleton, the other community partners must buy in as well.”
Littleton stressed that the idea of a mobile harm reduction system, complete with all the tests, needle exchanges, and information, is only an idea, and one of many.
For him, it’s about preventing Clinton County from becoming like Scott County, Indiana, a comparison he made frequently.
Scott County, Indiana was ground zero for an HIV outbreak in southern Indiana that one Indiana state health official called the proportionally worst HIV epidemic in U.S. history.
Health officials and media reports of that epidemic blamed it on needle drug use and needle sharing. In all, more than 180 people were diagnosed with HIV in a county of about 24,000.
“It’s not about anything but disease prevention … nobody wants Hep-C or HIV and this thing is underneath their feet,” and their children’s feet, Littleton said.
Littleton is still working out the specifics of how the organization would work and how it would be funded and has even created concept art. He mentioned the possibility of partnering with churches to generate contacts, and he wants to focus on Blanchester, Sabina and Wilmington.
One of the things he’s certain of, however, is how he wants to approach addicts.
“The answer to addiction is not sobriety, the answer to addiction is connection,” he said, adding that he hopes to structure the program to foster future meetings and to continue directing people towards services to help them get better.
“If we’re doing anything, we’re inspiring the user,” he said. “We’re connecting to say we’re here to help.”
Reach Nathan Kraatz at 937-382-2574, ext. 2510 or on Twitter @NathanKraatz.