Indiana governor posed to declare HIV crisis
Scottsburg, Ind. – — Faced with a growing HIV outbreak tied to intravenous drug use, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence said Wednesday he’s considering a needle-exchange program as part of a public health emergency he’s preparing to declare in a county that’s at the epicenter of the cases.
Pence, a Republican, said he generally opposes needle exchanges but is listening to health officials to determine the best way to stop the outbreak in Scott County in southern Indiana. Health officials say 72 cases of HIV have been confirmed in southern Indiana and seven other people have preliminary positive HIV infections. All of those infected either live in Scott County or have ties to the county.
Pence, who plans to issue an executive order Thursday morning outlining a range of state actions, noted Scott County typically sees five HIV cases each year.
“What I’m thinking about carefully and thoughtfully is what’s needed in a public health emergency, what’s necessary to really get control of this in the immediate future,” Pence said.
Needle-exchange programs allow people to turn in used hypodermic needles and get clean ones in an effort to keep diseases such as HIV and hepatitis from spreading. Such programs are illegal in Indiana, but a measure being debated in the Legislature would allow them on a limited basis.
IV drug use has been determined as the mode of infection in nearly all of the cases in the outbreak, said state epidemiologist Pam Pontones said.
The number of cases is expected to rise. Officials are trying to contact as many as 100 people tied to those with confirmed infections.
The state has launched an awareness campaign that includes billboards and social media. State health commissioner Dr. Jerome Adams said a mobile unit will be sent to Scott County with resources to help combat the outbreak.
Pontones said state health officials and staff from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who arrived in the county about 30 miles north of Louisville, Kentucky, on Monday agree that the outbreak “is an indicator of a larger problem,” which is rampant IV drug use in the economically depressed region.
“With the amount of drug use that’s happening and the intravenous needle-sharing that’s going on, if someone who’s highly infectious becomes part of that sharing network, that infection can transmit very rapidly,” Pontones said.
Republican Rep. Ed Clere of New Albany, who proposed the needle distribution and collection program Wednesday at the Statehouse, said a House panel considered similar legislation last year, but it didn’t receive a hearing in the Senate.
“Unfortunately we’re back here, not just with needle exchange as a hypothetical theory, but with a real situation where a needle exchange (program) could make a difference,” he said.
The program would require participating agencies to register with state and local health departments and provide information on treatment for drug addiction.
Dr. Jennifer Walthall, deputy state health commissioner, told lawmakers that despite Pence’s opposition, the department must look at every option.