“It’s about teaching people how to be safe and saving lives,” said Vicki Bradley, director of the tribe’s Public Health and Human Services division. “Law enforcement really endorses this program because the incidence of needle sticks in our public safety workers has decreased 66 percent (where such programs are in place).”
The needle exchange site would include a place to dispose of used needles and pick up clean ones; access to birth control and prenatal care, and to postnatal care for babies born addicted; educational materials on overdose prevention, unplanned pregnancy prevention, disease prevention, drug abuse prevention and treatment for mental illness and substance abuse; and access to naloxone to reverse overdoses.
Such programs are the only ones proven to be effective in reducing the incidence of drug-related diseases, Bradley said, and participation makes someone five times more likely to go into a treatment program.
The program won’t be cheap, however. The proposed 2018 budget contains $750,000 in funding.
“What we want to do is stop the spread of disease,” Bradley said. “We also want to stop the incidence of dirty needles in our community. It’s a public safety issue.”
The resolution, which Councilmember Teresa McCoy, of Big Cove, introduced last month, drew unanimous support from an often-divided Tribal Council.
The drug epidemic has been a frequent topic of discussion in Tribal Council lately, with representatives concerned about the toll it’s taking on their communities and anxious to find some way to make a dent in the problem. Also during the Aug. 3 meeting, they unanimously passed a resolution that Principal Chief Richard Sneed introduced declaring the opioid crisis a public nuisance.
“This is drastic, but it’s drastic measures that need to be taken,” Councilmember Anita Lossiah, of Yellowhill, said of the needle exchange program.
When the idea was first discussed during the June 1 meeting, Bradley said she thought she could have the program in place by Oct. 1. The sooner the better, councilmembers seemed to think, though they’re all aware of the need to educate the public at large on what the program is and what it aims to accomplish.
“A lot of people just see it as condoning the drug epidemic that we’ve got, so I think we really need to get the message out to the community and let them see why we’re doing what we’re doing,” said Councilmember Alan “B” Ensley, of Yellowhill.
Currently, Bradley said Aug. 3, there are 347 cases of infectious Hepatitis C on the Qualla Boundary — it costs the tribe a lot of money to treat those people, not to mention the ongoing burden to the individual throughout their life. And then there’s the risk the disease’s presence can cause to the public at large.
And, in McCoy’s view, allowing the epidemic to stand only allows it to get worse.
“The type of people that see our neighborhood and the situation it’s in might not be the people with the best character who feel comfortable in places like that, so they come and they find a market and it’s our people,” she said. “What they leave behind is death and disease and the things we don’t want our people exposed to.”