HIV Outbreak In Indiana Is Now Officially An Emergency

Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images.
An outbreak of HIV in Indiana has already infected at least 79 people in a southern corner of the state, and on Thursday, Gov. Mike Pence approved a needle exchange program to stop the spread of the disease.

All the cases have been linked to intravenous opiate drug use, and state health officials expect the number of infections to grow. Since December, when the first case was diagnosed in rural Scott County, cases have been identified in five other counties. 

"Scott County is facing an epidemic of HIV, but this is not a Scott County problem; this is an Indiana problem," Pence said in a statement announcing the 30-day needle-exchange program. "The people of Scott County are working hard to address this crisis, and with additional state resources and new tools provided by this emergency declaration, I am confident that together we will stop this HIV outbreak in its tracks."

Health workers will also be safe from any criminal penalties that normally apply for giving drug users clean needles while the program is active. Many harm-reduction advocates and public health officials have been calling for safe needle exchanges in the state, but Pence said Thursday, "I don't believe effective anti-drug policy involves handing out drug paraphernalia."

Pence also said that he would not consider extending the program if the outbreak continues to get worse, and he shut down speculation that he might support any efforts to make state-wide needle exchanges permanent. Gov. Steve Beshear, of neighboring Kentucky, signed a bill Wednesday that would improve drug treatment programs in the state and allow local health departments to set up needle exchanges.

There are more than 1.2 million people in the U.S. currently living with HIV, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Scott County usually sees around five cases of HIV a year.
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