Indiana Governor Mike Pence declared a public health emergency Thursday in a southern Indiana County where the health department reports a huge increase in the number of cases of HIV infection.
All of the new HIV patients are drug users who use needles, specifically injecting the painkiller Opana. That discovery led the governor to take drastic action which he says he actually does not personally agree with: a needle exchange program.
The plan involves giving syringes to known drug users. The controversial idea is already being done in other parts of the country, but not normally in Indiana. In fact, the State has banned such programs, but the emergency order allows Gov. Pence to open one for 30 days.
"I am opposed to needle exchange as anti-drug policy," Gov. Pence emphasized Thursday. "But this is a public health emergency and as governor of the State of Indiana, I'm going to put the lives of the people of Indiana first."
Scott County, which is about 30 miles north of Louisville and where the emergency was declared, they typically see five cases of HIV year. Just in the past few weeks, they've discovered 79 cases, leading public health officials to focus on stopping what's being described as an epidemic.
"Our concern is to prevent the transmission of the virus at all means necessary," said Tom Bartenbach of the Damien Center.
The Damien Center, located on the near-east side of Indianapolis, provides free HIV testing - no questions asked. They would like to see a permanent needle exchange program, but Bartenbach, who testified before State officials dealing with the current outbreak, said the emergency order is a step in the right direction.
"Needle exchange programs [and] harm reduction programs that exist around the country and around the world have proved to be extremely successful in reducing the new infection rate," explained Bartenbach.
While illicit drug use can't be stopped overnight, the hope is that the spread of HIV can be.
"I'm confident that we're going to stop this in its tracks, but this is an epidemic," the governor said.
The state has also sent intervention specialists to Scott County to help with the outbreak, including a command center to coordinate HIV and substance abuse treatment and a mobile unit to enroll people in a state-run health program. There's an ad campaign in the area to encourage people to get tested for HIV.
At the same time, police are working to identify and arrest those responsible for selling these injectable drugs.
The number of cases is expected to rise. Officials are trying to contact as many as 100 people tied to those with confirmed infections.
For more information, call the HIV assistance hotline 866-588-4948 and the Addiction Hotline at 800-662-HELP(4357).