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As HIV epidemic rages in Indiana, lessons to be learned from Vancouver

Indiana Governor Mike Pence this week declared a public health emergency because of 79 H.I.V. cases among injection drug-users in the southern part of the state.

Pence has launched a 30-day needle-exchange program to stop the virus, which officials say is being spread by addicts sharing infected needles. Needle-exchange programs allow anyone to hand-in used syringes in exchange for clean, free ones.

Pence has long opposed needle-exchange programs, which he argues promote drug use, but he said he was willing to temporarily reverse course.

“I do not enter into this lightly,” he 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.”

Back in the 1990s, Vancouver, British Columbia found itself grappling with a severe epidemic of HIV/AIDS among intravenous drug users.

“Vancouver experienced what has been described as the most explosive epidemic of H.I.V. ever observed outside of Sub-Saharan Africa,” said Dr. Thomas Kerr, an H.I.V. researcher in British Columbia.

Officials in British Columbia created what has been hailed as one of the most effective H.I.V. prevention programs in the world — one that’s being studied by China and the U.S. for its success containing the virus among a very hard-to-reach population.

PBS NewsHour Weekend traveled to Vancouver last year to examine how their program works, including a look inside a controversial facility where medical staff help addicts inject illegal drugs safely.

You can see that full report here below. [Editor’s note: This video report contains depictions of intravenous drug use that may be disturbing to some viewers.]