Health official warns of crises facing NRV area

New River Valley Health District Director Dr. Noelle Bissell says there are two major health issues facing the area today – sexually transmitted infections and drug addiction.

Bissell reported on the issues Monday night at the February meeting of the Pulaski County Board of Supervisors.

“Right now, this issue is surrounded by a stigma that we don’t want to talk about it, and we have to talk about it,” Bissell said about sexually transmitted infections.

“The big thing is we have to change the narrative,” Bissell said.

Bissell told supervisors that sexually transmitted infections are so prevalent that one in two sexually active young adults will contract such an infection by the time they’re age 26.

“That is a pretty staggering statistic,” Bissell said.

She said in the past four years, sexually transmitted infections in the U.S. have gone up steadily and surprisingly. She noted the U.S. leads the industrialized nations of the world in such infections, which costs the country $16 billion annually.

One of the causes behind the growth in sexually transmitted infections, Bissell said, is how good contraception has become in the country.

“We are victims of our own success with contraception,” Bissell said. “Used to be, people who wanted to avoid pregnancy would reach for condoms. Now we have such good contraception people don’t think about condoms as much. The only way to prevent contracting a sexually transmitted infection is by either not having sex or using condoms.”

Bissell said long-term consequences of sexually transmitted infections include infertility, stillbirths, miscarriages and ectopic pregnancies.

Bissell added that most people think if they have a sexually transmitted infection, they’ll have symptoms. “That’s not true,” she said.

“Most people do not have symptoms,” Bissell said. “They can spread infections or have them long-term without knowing it. The only way to know is to get tested.  Anybody who’s had sex – even once – without protection is at risk.”

Bissell told supervisors the New River Health District is beginning an advertising campaign to educate the public on the issue, using billboards, a media campaign, ads in theatres and on buses in Pulaski, Radford and Blacksburg.

“The only way to know if you’re infected is get tested, and the only way to get people tested is to get the word out there,” Bissell stated, adding the Health Department will do testing for free.

The second major issue Bissell reported on is the addiction crisis.

Bissell said the addiction crisis in the New River Valley began with opioids, but is transitioning to intravenous injection drug use.

“It’s not just opioids now, but we’re seeing a lot of methamphetamines right now,” Bissell said.

“We have to change the narrative here as well,” she said. “That addiction is a disease and not a moral failing. And the only way to do that is to treat people with addiction with the respect they deserve and get them the help they need.”

“Studies show that most people agree we have an addiction crisis in this country, but most people do not think it affects them, whereas the opposite is true. Most of us in this room tonight probably knows someone who struggles with it and you may not even know it,” Bissell said.

She explained that most people with an addiction crisis didn’t start out with opioids or methamphetamines.

“They started out with other drugs like tobacco, and I think everyone knows we have a tobacco crisis with the Juuls and electronic cigarettes,” Bissell said. “Not only through the use of Juuls, which one pod contains as much nicotine as a pack of cigarettes, but also through using marijuana in these electronic cigarettes.”

“So vaping is not harmless,” she added.

She said the Health Department is confronting the addiction issue on multiple fronts through prevention education.

“The addiction crisis isn’t going to go away, and we can’t ignore it any longer,” Bissell said.