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New syringe exchange law causes hope and concern in Scott County

To date, there are 215 confirmed cases of HIV out of the 24,000 people living in rural Scott County. Before the outbreak, there had only been five HIV cases in the county within the past 10 years.

AUSTIN, Ind. (Statehouse File) - While walking down the streets of Austin, the sounds of dogs barking and sight of the trash in the ditches distract from the smaller, less noticeable objects lying on the ground: syringes. The bright orange caps are the only thing that help the needles stand out in the tall weeds, but only if you’re looking for them.

Scott County residents and health officials held a needle cleanup earlier this month. After taking a training course on proper needle disposal, they walked the streets of Austin and Scottsburg to collect needles that had been thrown on the street. During the event, 317 needles were found.

Students from Indiana University worked with the community to put on the event. Daniel Sterling, one of the students who participated in the event, said it had a great turnout.

“That’s definitely still 317 people that could’ve gotten hepatitis C or HIV had any one of those stuck them,” Sterling said. “Yes, the chance is small, but it’s definitely important to prevent transmission of disease in any way possible.”

Discarded needles have become a regular sight around Scott County in recent years as needle sharing among drug users has evolved into an HIV epidemic. To date, there are 215 confirmed cases of HIV out of the 24,000 people living in the rural area. Before the outbreak, there had only been five HIV cases in the county within the past 10 years.

In an effort to combat the outbreak in Scott County as well as around the state, Gov. Eric Holcomb signed House Enrolled Act 1438 into law Wednesday, which will allow more syringe programs to open in the state. The issue, however, has created a debate between those in favor of needle exchange programs and those like Attorney General Curtis Hill who argue that the programs promote drug use.

The Scott County Needle Exchange was the first program to open in Indiana after then-Gov. Mike Pence declared a public health emergency in 2015 allowing Scott County to create the state's first needle exchange program. He later signed legislation allowing any county to start a program so long as they received authorization from the state. Since then, public health emergencies have been declared in eight other counties, clearing the way for syringe programs.

A new law passed this year, which went into effect immediately, allows a county or city to enact its own syringe exchange program rather than seek approval from the state.

For Austin Police Officer John Smith, driving around Scott County and collecting needles is part of his job. Smith gets multiple calls every day from residents asking him to go pick up needles. The town is not big enough to have that many needle calls in one day, he said.

Scott County would be better off without a needle exchange, in Smith’s opinion. He had hoped the new legislation wouldn’t pass.

However, Dr. Carrie Foote, an IUPUI professor and chair of the HIV Modernization Movement, said research shows the exchanges do not increase drug use.

“What it does is it reduces infectious disease and it actually increases the amount of people that will seek treatment, because it provides them an access to treatment,” Foote said.

When she was 17, Foote was a homeless heroin addict living with HIV in New York City. Now, Foote tells her story and informs people about the misconceptions of HIV. From her own experience, she believes the answer to the state’s HIV problem lies in banishing the stigma and educating the community.

“I think one of the reasons I’ve done well is I had people in my life who provided me support and care,” Foote said. “I was not criminalized. I could have been, but I wasn’t. I was offered treatment.”

Foote did not have access to a syringe exchange program growing up, but she is glad they exist in Indiana now. For Foote, her only complaint with the new law is that it doesn’t go far enough. She doesn’t want Hoosiers to have to wait for an outbreak to happen before being allowed to open a new program in another county.

Since Indiana's syringe exchange programs began, HIV transmission rates have decreased by 80 percent.

Patti Hall, the preparedness coordinator for the Scott County Health Department, says it’s important to provide drug users with sterile needles they need for safe injecting.

“When the addiction is that strong, you’re going to find a way to do it regardless of the circumstances or the consequences therefore,” Hall said. “They’re going to do it whether we provide the needles or not.”

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