HIV-stricken Indiana county sees uptick in new cases

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Used syringes are discarded at a needle exchange clinic in St. Johnsbury, Vermont. In late March, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence declared a public health emergency and issued an executive order suspending a state law prohibiting needle exchanges. Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

A southeastern Indiana county at the epicenter of a drug-related HIV crisis has seen a significant uptick in new cases of the virus since it began a temporary needle exchange program more than two weeks ago.

Indiana State Department of Health announced Friday that 120 confirmed HIV cases have now been tied to Scott County — up from 106 the week before. The department also reported 10 preliminary cases. The county usually sees around five HIV cases per year.

Health officials note that part of the sharp increase in reported cases is likely due to increased testing for the virus.

“We have seen a significant increase in the number of HIV cases reported this week, but we believe that is because we have been able to offer more testing with the help of additional staff from CDC,” State Health Commissioner Jerome Adams said in the Friday health department announcement.

In late March, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence declared a public health emergency and issued an executive order suspending a state law prohibiting needle exchanges, allowing a 30-day needle exchange program because of a sharp increase in HIV cases among intravenous drug users in southeastern Indiana.

The exchange, which is only for Scott County residents, provides users with enough syringes for one week and gives them thick plastic boxes called “sharps” in which they can place used needles and return them for safe disposal.

The state health department reports that since the needle exchange opened on April 4, it has handed out 5,322 clean syringes to 86 participants and received about 1,400 used needles.

According to an Associated Press report, a spokeswoman for Gov. Pence, Kara Brooks, said Friday that the Governor was reviewing information from health officials, and would soon reach a decision on whether to extend the needle exchange past its current April 25 end date.

Pence has previously opposed needle exchanges, arguing that these programs promote drug use. In his announcement of the 30-day exchange, Pence said:

In response to a public health emergency, I’m prepared to make an exception to my long-standing opposition to needle exchange programs … I don’t believe effective anti-drug policy involves handing out drug paraphernalia.

According to health officials, the Scott County outbreak is mainly centered around intravenous use of a potent prescription opioid painkiller called Opana.

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