The governor of Indiana has declared a "public health disaster emergency" after a spike of HIV cases in southern Indiana has alarmed health officials.
Gov. Mike Pence made the declaration for Scott County after 71 confirmed and seven preliminary positive cases of HIV were found in the southeast region of the state. While nationwide HIV is primarily spread through sexual intercourse, this outbreak has been fueled by intravenous drug use, according to the Indiana Health Department.
"I am deeply troubled by this outbreak, and stopping it is a top priority for our department," State Health Commissioner Dr. Jerome Adams said in a statement. "We are engaging local, state, and national partners to determine where we can most effectively focus our efforts. Extra care is being taken to invest resources in getting people off drugs and into treatment, since drug abuse is the clear driving force behind this outbreak."
Today Pence traveled to Scott County to talk to local health officials about the increase in cases and what can be done about it.
A team from the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention has been dispatched to the region to help local and state health officials. The team including a two medical doctors and an epidemiologist will work with state and local health officials to try and combat the rising HIV cases.
A public awareness campaign to alert residents about the increase in HIV cases has started in the region.
According to the state health department the outbreak is mainly related to the intravenous drug use of an prescription opioid painkiller called Opana, although some people reported that unprotected sex also led to infection.
"Until now, everybody thought they could just do that at will and there was no consequence to it. Now we see so many people with HIV that never knew they had it," Scott County Sheriff Dan McClain told ABC News affiliate WHAS-TV in Louisville, Kentucky, about the outbreak that started in mid-December.
HIV experts say they hope that the state will consider allowing a needle-exchange program to help combat the growing spread of HIV infections.
Anthony Hayes, managing director of public affairs and policy at Gay Men's Health Crisis in New York, said that New York's needle exchange program has helped to significantly reduce HIV infections through intravenous drug use.
"Research has shown over and over again that syringe exchange reduces risky behavior," said Hayes. "What needs to happen is a compassionate reaction to what is a clearly a public health problem."
According to the Gay Men's Health Crisis, the National Institute of Health found that HIV rates dropped by 30 percent in areas with safe needle exchanges.
"If you clamp down too hard in an uncompassionate way...then what you end up doing is [driving] people who are using injection drugs underground," he said. "Which will only increase this behavior."