Indianapolis — Indiana’s health commissioner approved a one-year needle-exchange program Thursday for a rural county at the center of the state’s largest HIV outbreak, an epidemic that’s being driven by needle-sharing among intravenous drug users.

Dr. Jerome Adams’ approval for Scott County includes a public health emergency declaration that will allow it to operate a needle-exchange through May 24, 2016. The southeastern Indiana county had been operating a temporary needle-exchange under an executive order signed by Gov. Mike Pence that will expire Sunday.

The county, about 30 miles north of Louisville, Kentucky, is the first to receive state approval for a needle-exchange under a new state law that provides for exchanges if a community proves it’s facing an HIV or hepatitis C epidemic fueled by intravenous drug use.

State epidemiologist Pam Pontones said Thursday that 160 people have tested positive for HIV — one in a preliminary test — since December. Most of the users injected a liquefied form of the painkiller Opana. Nearly all of those cases have been in Scott County, which typically has about five new HIV cases each year.

Adams testified Thursday before the U.S. House’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations that the opioid abuse issues plaguing the nation require a multi-pronged approach. He said officials need to address issues such as homelessness, hunger, access to health insurance and integration into society after incarceration, along with access to education and jobs.

“If people don’t have hope, they will increasingly turn to and stay on drugs,” Adams said, calling that “a painful lesson we learned in Scott County.”

He said the lessons aren’t limited to Indiana.

“Our situation in Indiana may be unprecedented in many ways, but in many others, it illustrates problems faced throughout our country,” he said.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an alert to health departments nationwide last month, urging them to take steps to identify and track HIV and hepatitis C cases to prevent outbreaks similar to Indiana’s, which was detected in January.


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