[r73] Health of Hoosiers is top priority

Posted by: Lindsay Devlin  | Friday, April 24, 2015

At the end of February, the Indiana State Department of Health (ISDH) announced an outbreak of HIV in the southeastern portion of the state, specifically Scott County.  With over 142 individuals testing positive for HIV, a majority linked to drug use and sharing needles, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) declared this outbreak an epidemic. As those numbers continue to rise, state health officials have been working closely with local health departments, health care providers and others to contain the spread of the disease.

While there is no perfect fix for this situation, public health professionals from Indiana and the CDC began calling for a needle-exchange program, a comprehensive public health response to HIV and injection drug use. In an executive order on March 26, Governor Pence established a temporary needle-exchange program in Scott County, which has since been expanded. The Scott County Board of Health unanimously voted to authorize the program request, which began on April 4, to encourage Hoosiers to get tested and take part in the program.

The needle-exchange program is currently only for Scott County residents and asks participants to discuss their rate of drug use and give other basic demographic information for research and statistical purposes. Participants in the exchange receive enough clean needles for one week and are asked to bring in their used needles when in need of additional ones. Most importantly, the program also presents an opportunity for health professionals to provide treatment information on substance abuse and HIV/AIDS. Participants are provided with resources about substance abuse, mental health and other appropriate resources during their visit.

Despite diligent efforts to contain this epidemic, it has now spread outside of Scott County. Working to address this in the Legislature, Senate Bill (SB) 461 would allow a local health department or approved nonprofit organization conduct a needle-exchange program. This legislation was amended in the House and is still making its way through the legislative process.

Right now, lawmakers are working hard to determine what the best legislative solution is to address this public health crisis. One option is to give more local control to design and administrator a needle-exchange program. Another option is to identify at-risk counties by dividing them into four quartiles using the number of Hepatitis C Virus (HCV) cases. HCV is the strongest indicator of a need for needle-exchange as 50-80 percent of injection drug users become HIV infected within 5 years of starting.

However, as we continue to discuss this legislation, the most important thing to consider is the health and well-being of all Hoosiers, which has always been a top priority of mine. I am relieved that discussion on this important issue is taking place, and I am confident the individuals on the conference committee are working hard to create a plan in the best interest of our state and region. Your thoughts and opinions on this or other issues affecting our community is always appreciated, so I encourage you to contact me by phone at 1-800-383-9841 or by email h73@iga.in.gov