SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Scott County, Ind., is one of the poorest and least-healthy counties in that state. Recently, injection drug abuse there has caused an epidemic of HIV. More than 70 people have been diagnosed in the past few months in a place that usually sees just a handful of cases a year. Jake Harper of WFYI in Indianapolis reports the crises has reignited the debate over needle exchanges, which are currently illegal in Indiana and 22 other states.
JAKE HARPER, BYLINE: Shane Avery practices medicine in Scott County. In December, a patient came to his office. She was pregnant and an injection drug user. After running some routine tests, Avery found out that she was positive for HIV. She was the second case he had seen in just a few weeks.
DR. SHANE AVERY: And then I think right then, I kind of realized, wow, are we on the tip of something? But you just put it away 'cause you say, you know, it's statistically an oddity when you're just one little doctor, you know.
HARPER: It wasn't just a blip. Health officials have identified dozens of new HIV cases since December and more are expected. Many of the cases in the outbreak have been linked specifically to a powerful prescription opioid called Opana. It seems to be a favorite among addicts, who have found a way to make the pill injectable. Dr. Andy Chambers is an addiction specialist at the Indiana University School of Medicine. He says users who share needles can spread a variety of diseases, including HIV.
DR. ANDY CHAMBERS: There's a social network that often goes along with this kind of drug use. And so it's fairly usual for infectious diseases to spread through the needles.
HARPER: Chambers says the HIV outbreak calls attention to the national epidemic of opioid drug abuse.
CHAMBERS: I'm actually, you know, as I think about it - I'm surprised there haven't been other similar outbreaks in other parts of the country that could be described in the same way as Scott County, Ind.
HARPER: The fear of HIV spreading beyond just Scott County has renewed the debate over legalizing needle exchanges. Exchanges let drug users trade dirty needles for clean ones and reduce the spread of infections that occur when sharing syringes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has convinced Indiana Governor Mike Pence to allow a temporary needle exchange in Scott County as part of the emergency response. But he's opposed to legalizing exchanges statewide.
GOVERNOR MIKE PENCE: I don't believe that effective anti-drug policy involves handing out paraphernalia to drug users by government officials. I reject that.
HARPER: But Representative Ed Clere says needle exchanges shouldn't just be used to manage a crisis. They should be put in place in time to prevent outbreaks from occurring.
REPRESENTATIVE ED CLERE: When we smell smoke, we shouldn't wait until the house is engulfed in flames to do something.
HARPER: Clere has introduced a measure that would legalize needle exchanges across the board in Indiana. When he introduced a similar measure last year, it failed. He says needle exchanges won't just save lives, they'll save money.
CLERE: Many of the folks who have contracted HIV in Scott County are going to be receiving treatment at taxpayer expense. Even with the number of cases that have been confirmed so far, you know, we could be talking about tens of millions or hundreds of millions of dollars.
HARPER: Lawmakers in neighboring Kentucky approved needle exchanges in that state this week. But Indiana Governor Mike Pence is still threatening to veto a needle exchange bill if it reaches his desk. For NPR News, I'm Jake Harp in Indianapolis.
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