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Students in rural Indiana are suddenly experts on HIV

AUSTIN, Ind. — Holli Reynolds didn’t entirely understand what HIV was when the news broke earlier this year that 11 people in her tiny town had tested positive for the virus that causes AIDS. Neither did her classmates — a group of students who have always considered HIV a treatable chronic disease that rarely visits a place like rural southeastern Indiana.

So when the number of infections in Austin and surrounding Scott County jumped to more than 140 — the worst outbreak in Indiana’s history — false rumors spread swiftly through the halls of Austin High School and the surrounding region. People were claiming that the virus could spread via toilet seats, water fountains, even tennis balls.

“I was like, ‘Well, we’re going to have to do something about it so everyone’s aware of what’s going on around them. Because we’re living in it,” said Reynolds, who is captain of the basketball team and the school’s homecoming queen.

As a response, Reynolds, 18, and her classmates rushed to release a special edition of the student newspaper, The Eagle, that focused on the outbreak. Articles profiled at-risk residents, dispelled rumors and discussed the impact of the outbreak on the town. Students also started a group called “Stand Up” to educate younger kids about the HIV virus and staying healthy.

Here are excerpts from some of these student articles:

“Appearance is not everything, folks.”

Excerpt from “Light in the Storm,” an editorial by Kami Owens, 16

“The media has done an astonishing job of showing the world the negatives of little Austin, Ind. But along with every negative, there is a positive. Austin may be a small town, but when tragedy hits, it affects all, and our close-knit town and community become family.

Scott County is made up of two cities that are relatively supportive of each other in times of need. When a member of the community is in crisis, the two cities are quick to join together to help. Scott County is by no means a wealthy community, but it is good at raising money to support those who live in it. Two special stories come to mind. Leanna Berlin (Austin) and Kyle Baker (Scottsburg) have both recently suffered from cancer. The community held several fundraisers and chili suppers to help raise money for expenses for both families. Both Austin and Scottsburg schools have sold bracelets, suckers and T-shirts. Austin Middle and High schools have designated days to wear hats for donations to those families. They called the fundraiser “Caps off to Cancer.” During the two schools’ rivalry games, they held raffles and had change blankets to help raise money. The community is very supportive of its residents and will do whatever it takes to help them in the best way imaginable.”

“Austin was recently described by an online news source as being a quiet place where there is a sense that time has passed it by. The writer of the article, Geoff Williams, even made a comment about the Dairy Queen sign saying, “the local Dairy Queen sign appears to have been unchanged for decades.” Appearance is not everything, folks. Austin is an older community that was established as a city only seven years ago. Austin has kept its small-town appearance that the residents seem to love. It emanates a homey feeling where everyone knows each other. The older homes and history behind them are monumental and special to many. To outsiders, the classic Dairy Queen sign may seem outdated along with the rest of the town, but to the ones that live in Austin, those are trademarks of the place that they call home.”

“I am fed up with the press’s skewed description of our citizens.”

Excerpt from an article by Josh Davidson, 18

“Throughout the nation, American citizens are reading about this “rural Indiana town” that is the epicenter of one of the largest HIV epidemics in our nation’s history. As I am writing this, I am certain that across the world, the populace of our city is being labeled as “poverty stricken” and uneducated. I strongly disagree with the description because I have not only seen, I have experienced the lighter side of Austin, and I think it is time that we take a stand. I am fed up with the press’s skewed description of our citizens and their lifestyles, and I refuse to let it remain unchallenged. I have lived in this community my entire life and I know that the positives outweigh the negatives by far, and I intend to represent the positives and seek credit for them when it is due. I refuse to allow my community to be labeled as a result of the actions of a few people.”

“Gov. Pence states that 100 percent of the cases involved have dealt with drugs and the transfer of needles.”

Excerpt from an article by Holli Reynolds, 18

“Scott County is making national and world headlines for all of the wrong reasons. Austin has been dealing with poverty and a drug problem for over 50 years, but recently the problem has escalated and taken an ugly turn with the massive HIV outbreak in the community.

Over 84 people have tested positive since January, with five more currently getting re-tested [since the publication of this article, the number of those infected in the region have topped 140]. Keep in mind that Austin is made up of only 4,200 people.

Gov. Pence states that 100 percent of the cases involved have dealt with drugs and the transfer of needles. Although all the cases have been transmitted through the sharing of needles, there are other ways to catch the HIV virus, and if victims do not treat the virus, many may only live for two years.”

On tonight’s PBS NewsHour, watch the full broadcast report on Austin’s search for a solution to the drug problem harming its citizens.

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