Troubling news concerning Indiana is coming out tonight, with new reports of over 100 people now testing positive for HIV. The HIV outbreak is being linked to the sharing of needles, which is something intravenous drug users do, and officials are trying to calm the public as fears of the disease spreading begins to grow. Governor Mike Pence declared a public health emergency on March 26, then allowed a needle-exchange program to be put into place for 30 days. While this sounds like a good move, a lot of drug users are misinformed about the needle-exchange program.
One major concern that drug users have is that they believe they will be arrested if they begin using the needle-exchange program. A lot of drug users were hesitating to use the program because of the fear the cops would be waiting for them when they got there, and there was fear that the users’ information would be used by police to conduct raids or searches. Officials have been out in force trying to stop this misinformation by reiterating this program is there to help the drug users and combat HIV, and it in no way would lead to anyone being arrested for taking part in the program.
The Indiana Joint Information Center confirmed 95 cases already, with 11 other cases testing positive on a preliminary level. There was only 84 cases confirmed with 5 preliminary positive just a week ago. Most of the drug users who are contracting HIV at this point are shooting up the potent painkiller Opana, turning it into a liquified form to be injected into the body. The outbreak is basically around Scott County, which is one of the most rural Indiana counties near the southern border. In Scott County, jobs and the local economy are pretty bleak, with hardly any hospitals or government programs aimed at helping the often poverty-stricken residents. This in part is also why an HV outbreak has happened, since the drug users are often too poor to have health insurance or don’t have a job that has health insurance as an option. Since Scott County is rural, even getting to a county hospital is a task, with only a couple HIV clinics even near the residents.
The needle-exchange program Pence signed into law, while possibly helpful, was only for Scott County, which makes no sense considering how quick HIV can spread among the IV drug user population. Since Scott County is only 30 miles north of Louisville, KY, there is a huge possibility of the drug users infecting other people in states like Kentucky and Ohio, since both states are close to the county. You have to think that a lot of the drug users are either buying or using in other places as well, so if one person goes into Louisville, KY, then it could start a huge HIV epidemic that can very easily spread throughout the Midwest. So far, health officials are saying that those infected are either from Scott County or have specific ties, but this is something officials from nearby states are watching very closely.
The city of Austin, IN, is where the needle-exchange program is located, which has about 4,500 residents, and is the place where the HIV outbreak began within the county. Only four people joined the needle-exchange program on the first day it was open, which has a lot to do with the users being worried about the impact of admitting their problem in a government-ran building. Just from those four people, they exchanged 300 used needles and got 168 new ones. The public health nurse for Scott County Health Department came out saying that 11 more people had joined the program the following day, with even more people stopping by to join in the following days.
Health officials are passing out fliers in communities where known drug users live and where the drug epidemic is centered, in hopes of quelling fears about being part of the needle-exchange program. The fliers include information such as how members of the program get a laminated card, which has date of birth, gender, and two letters from their first and last name on it. The users were worried that there was surveillance tape that would be used later to arrest them, so the fliers also contain myths about the needle-exchange program, and how the program actually works. Health officials believe that if they can stop the myths and concerns that the IV drug users have in regards to the police and being arrested, they will be able to help more people, and get more people to join in the program. So far the volunteers who are doing the community outreach, trying to comfort the users, and hand out the fliers are getting good results. More IV drug users are coming in every day to sign up for the program, which is free to those who want to take part. The health officials are more concerned with giving the users clean needles to use than arresting them or using their information for police. The process however is very slow, because when it comes to drug users, the government and government-ran programs are often not trusted. The health officials hope that the volunteers can reach out and be the trust factor that can get the drug users to come to the needle-exchange program, which is only supposed to last 30 days.
There have also been community leaders and other more vocal community members that have came into the needle-exchange to register, to try to show the drug users that nothing will happen if they sign up. It really is a process that has to take time, with more users coming in daily, and then spreading the word to other users about how good the needle-exchange program is. The needle-exchange program can be extended in increments of 30 days, which is likely to happen since the number of HIV cases has now risen past 100. The state health officials have also brought in a mobile unit within Austin, IN, which is to help enroll the people into state-run healthcare programs. The mobile unit also helps these residents get HIV testing, and will provide them with information and ways to coordinate treatment for their substance abuse problem. There is also a command center in Austin, IN, which will do all of these things as well, but the mobile unit allows the health officials to get into the communities, instead of having the people come to them.
As it stands right now, the people in Scott County are seeing an epidemic that has never happened before, with both Republican leaders like Governor Pence, and democratic leaders coming together to figure out how to stop the spread of HIV. Even if you do not live in Scott County or even in Indiana, this HIV outbreak can affect you as well, whether it is through the risk of transmission or a spread of the disease to other states or it is because taxpayers foot the bill when these addicts end up in the hospital. In terms of what is more helpful, getting the drug users clean needles is more important and the first step in helping lower the tax burden on everyone else, and also the first step to stopping the spread of HIV. There is still much more work to be done in Scott County, with a lot of drug users still being pretty leery about the needle-exchange program and the government leaders trying to coordinate the efforts, but that is to be expected in a group of people who often turn to drugs because of trust and abandonment issues from childhood. Pence will likely be making a decision in the coming weeks about whether or not to continue the needle-exchange program, but all signs point to the health officials giving him the go ahead on making it a longer program, since it will take more time to reach the drug users in a more in-depth manner.