The outbreak is localized within southeastern Indiana's Scott County

By Alex Heigl
March 26, 2015 12:15 PM
Bill Clark/Getty

Indiana Governor Mike Pence declared a public health emergency Thursday in the face of the worst outbreak of HIV in the state’s history. Seventy-nine HIV cases have been linked to intravenous drug use in Southeastern Indiana’s Scott County, and state health officials attribute it to an opiate painkiller called Opana. (Pence said Wednesday that Scott County typically sees just five cases per year.)

“For years we’ve been fighting Opana in our county,” Brittany Combs, public health nurse at Scott County Health Department, told ABC News. “[Doctors] won’t give [prescriptions] for Opana unless absolutely necessary. Our doctors aren’t writing for it. It’s coming from out of county.”

“The people of Scott County are working hard to address this crisis, and with additional state resources and new tools provided by this emergency declaration, I am confident that together we will stop this HIV outbreak in its tracks,” Pence said in a press release issued ahead of a news conference.

One such tool is a state-run short-term needle exchange program. Pence was careful to note Wednesday that he does not “support needle exchanges as an anti-drug policy,” but that the state would turn to one for 30 days to combat the outbreak.

That decision has not met with overwhelming support response from health officials: “A 30-day program would be much too short,” Dr. Kevin Burke, Clark County public health officer, told The Indianapolis Star. “You’re not going to help those people long-term.”

And Dr. Deepak Azad, an internist in Scottsburg, told the Star that containing the program to only the affected area was problematic, saying flatly that “keeping a needle exchange program only in Scott County is not going to solve the problem.”