New cases of HIV reported in southern Indiana, officials issue new alert

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INDIANAPOLIS (April 23, 2015) – Health officials are issuing a new national alert about the dangers of using dirty needles, as more cases of HIV are reported in Southern Indiana.

Seven new cases have been reported, bringing the total to 142 cases in Scott and Jackson counties, cases that are linked directly to drug use and dirty needles.

“They’re facing a severe outbreak, which spread quickly in their community,” said CDC official Dr. Jonathon Mermin. “The situation is a powerful reminder that people who inject drugs are at high risk for both HIV and Hepatitis infection.”

Meantime, state lawmakers are running out of time to come with a plan to fight the spread of HIV with less than a week left in this year’s legislative session.

So for some the question remains: would a larger needle exchange program stop the spread of HIV or just encourage drug users to keep using drugs?

“We’ve got a crisis, a growing crisis and every minute we wait it’s going to worse for the state of Indiana,” said Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson.

“Going to a statewide program when we really don’t know what we’re getting into might be hasty,” said Senate president pro tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne.

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence extended an emergency order Monday, aimed at stopping the HIV outbreak in Scott County that health officials are calling an epidemic.

The order will allow a needle exchange program to continue in the county through the end of May.

“While we’ve made progress in identifying and treating those affected by this heartbreaking epidemic, the public health emergency continues and so must our efforts to fight it,” Pence said in a statement.

As Pence signed the extension Monday, a legislative conference committee debated whether to expand needle exchange programs beyond Scott County.

The measure before lawmakers would allow counties with the highest rates of Hepatitis C to begin needle exchanges. Health officials say Hepatitis C is a good indicator for HIV.

An earlier version of the bill would have expanded needle exchange programs to all Indiana counties, but pushback from opponents and the Pence administration quashed that plan.

Lawmakers have a narrow window to implement change. Different versions of this measure have passed the House and Senate. It will be up to the conference committee to vote on any changes before the end of the session next week.

“What’s happened in Scott County is unprecedented and if we don’t act it could happen anywhere else in the state,” said state Rep. Ed Clere, R-New Albany, who chairs the House public health committee. “I think we’re getting close. I’m really optimistic that we’re going to end up with a piece of legislation that will allow needle exchange in areas that are at highest risk and that’s really where our focus ought to be right now.”

Clere said he was hopeful a conference committee report could be produced as early as Monday, with the possibility of a final vote on the issue by Tuesday or Wednesday at the latest.

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