The most recent number of infected individuals, released by the Indiana State Department of Health on Tuesday, has reached 143, with 138 confirmed cases and five preliminary positive cases of HIV.
The outbreak is reportedly caused by needle sharing among intravenous drug users who are injecting the prescription painkiller Opana.
On March 26, Gov. Mike Pence signed an executive order allowing health officials in Scott County to open a needle exchange program. Participants in the program are provided with support for substance abuse, mental health and other health-related resources upon each visit in addition to access to clean syringes and a place to deposit used needles. The program collects basic demographic information but does not require individuals to give names.
Pence’s executive order was initially a temporary measure, intended to last for only 30 days but was extended for an additional 30 days on April 20 and will last until May 24.
As of Tuesday, there have already been 166 visitors to the needle exchange center who brought in 6,494 needles to be safely disposed of and were given 7,146 needles, according to the ISDH.
In December, prior to the start of the outbreak, there was only one needle exchange program in the state, and it required drug users to give personal information before receiving clean syringes.
Officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention visited Indianapolis on Monday and together with Pence traveled to Scott County to further asses the state of the outbreak.
While the temporary needle exchange program was being administered, Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller urged state lawmakers to reach a deal that would establish a more comprehensive exchange program throughout the state.
“As the HIV outbreak continues to grow in Scott County, it has become abundantly clear that the Austin community — and other locations that may be at risk — need a serious, immediate solution to curb rampant needle sharing among abusers,” Zoeller said last week in a press release. “Providing clean syringes is the fastest way to halt further spread of the virus from infected individuals to non-infected ones.”
Zoeller is the co-chair of the Indiana Prescription Drug Abuse Task Force, a group of 120 doctors, pharmacists, health officials, treatment providers and law enforcement. The task force has been meeting with health officials in Scott County to discuss the response efforts of the state.
Because this legislative session ends this week, the urgency to pass a measure establishing a needle exchange program was heightened. Lawmakers officially passed a measure Tuesday that would enable the implementation of a needle exchange program in counties that are struggling with hepatitis C or HIV outbreaks.
County officials would be able to have public meetings to decide whether or not to request permission from the state to create a needle exchange program. Following an official request, the state health commissioner would have 10 days to respond.
This measure also takes $500,000 from the state budget to fund additional law enforcement in areas where drug use and abuse is a significant problem.
Beth Meyerson, an assistant professor at the School of Public Health and the co-director for the Rural Center for AIDS/STD Prevention, has vocalized the need for needle exchange programs in Indiana and concerns that need to be addressed about outbreaks such as this.
“We think about the access to needles, that’s one thing, and certainly understanding the use,” Meyerson said. “One of the questions we would ask is why are they using Opana? Were they shooting up before? Were they shooting up a cheaper substance? Understanding that sub-population and understanding what’s going on there is very, very important so that we can provide ?treatment.”
She added that she doesn’t think Indiana does a good job in providing funding to drug abuse treatment.
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