HAZARD — The Centers for Disease Control has ranked Perry County number 4 on the list of counties most vulnerable to developing an HIV and Hepatitis C epidemic in the near future. The CDC’s list ranks counties nationwide, throughout every state in America. Perry County’s number 4 ranking is alarming, especially when considering the fact that Clay County claims number 5 and Breathitt County is holding the number 3 spot, with Wolfe County chiming in at number 1.
Drugs are primarily to blame for Perry County’s sudden rise in threat from these diseases, which can be spread through intravenous needle sharing among addicts. Heroin is creeping into Southeast Kentucky at much larger quantities than before. For the past two decades, opiate based pain killers, such as Oxycontin and Percocet, have dominated the local narcotics market. But with law enforcement and the medical profession cracking down on illegal prescriptions, opiate based pain killers are becoming riskier to traffic. As a result, heroin is seeping through the mountains to feed on the increasing demand for opiates in Appalachia.
Pikeville is already swarming with heroin related problems. This week, the Pike County Fiscal Court approved a needle exchange program for addicts, in an effort to derail oncoming threats of diseases that can be transmitted through needle sharing. Other towns are looking into similar ordinances. According to the CDC, however, drugs alone are not the issue. The drug market’s pipeline into Perry County, as a whole, is to blame.
In the Southern Indiana town of Austin, Hepatitis C and HIV have spread rapidly, along with heroin addiction. Austin is about the same size as Hazard, and the two small cities, which are located hundreds of miles apart, share many common threads.
Decades ago, following World War II, thousands of workers began a steady migration out of the Perry County region to places like Southern Ohio and Southern Indiana for factory jobs. Although they started a new life in a new state, the workers who have left the mountains over the years maintained connections to family and friends here in Southeastern Kentucky.
Last year, Southern Indiana experienced a surge in heroin usage, which led to an outbreak of HIV and other needle sharing related diseases. Because so many people in Southern and Central Indiana have close ties to family members in Kentucky, a pipeline has been established, one which helps carry drugs into the mountains, and could carry the diseases associated with the drugs too.
These connections between the Austin area and the Hazard area are what prompted the CDC’s concerns. However, it is important to understand that, as of right now, Perry County’s high rank on the CDC’s recent list is only a warning. There is no indication at the moment of any major outbreak or epidemic. The warning stands as a call to action for communities to do what they can in effort to prevent such situations from occurring. Out of the top 220 counties on the CDC’s list, 54 of them are located in Kentucky.
Sam Neace can be reached at 606-629-3243 or on Twitter @HazardHerald.