The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new data indicating the number of new HIV infections in a rural Indiana county has grown . The federal agency is working with state health officials to control what is being termed a “severe outbreak,” which has spread among users of an injection based prescription opioid called Opana. The sharing of needles is considered the primary transfer mechanism of the disease.
The outbreak has been ongoing since mid-December with 142 people have tested positive for HIV as of Friday and 136 confirmed cases. Six more with preliminary positive test results, all in rural Scott and Jackson counties were also reported. As the area only has a population of a few thousand people this is considered a huge number of cases and dangerous epidemic.
The CDC and state health leaders held a joint news conference on Friday to discuss the new numbers and speak about the growing threat of the spread of disease from IV drug use. The issue is especially serious in isolated rural areas that have sparse health resources.
Scott County, the center of the outbreak, only has one doctor who deals with infectious disease, and he is not an HIV specialist, the State Department of Health said. Since the scary HIV outbreak was first noticed in mid-December, the state has flooded the area with additional resources. Indiana declared a public health emergency in March for the county .
Indiana University has also helped by sending health volunteers to provide a clinic, open once a week, to help treat people and test them for HIV. The volunteer workers are also going door to door to help educate the population about the danger of sharing needles.
It is not happenstance that most of the cases of the newly infected are younger people “who weren’t around in the ’80s and ’90s when HIV was at its peak,” Dr. Jonathan Mermin said.
During the decade of the 80s, doctors saw an average of 35,000 new HIV infections among IV drug users, and that figure has been down 90% nationally since then, he said. This sharp drop means younger people are not as aware about the danger of sharing needles.
Dr. Mermin is the director of the National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention. Education is the key, he emphasized. Indiana Gov. Mike Pence has signed a 30-day executive order that allows for a needle exchange. It was supposed to expire Friday, but he extended the order another 30 days. Needle exchanges have been scientifically shown to reduce new infections.
Indiana is also offering employment services to people in the area. Dr. Joan Duwve, the chief medical consultant at the Indiana State Department of Health, spoke about how communities all along the Ohio River in Indiana, Kentucky and West Virginia have seen a big issue with prescription drug abuse, particularly in areas where there “is not a lot to do.”
Family members, across generations, will occupy the same house and use the drugs together as “a community activity,” Duwve said. And leads to more needle sharing which in turn spreads infection. She said the problem has been ongoing for at least a decade.
“The situation in Indiana should serve as a warning not to let our guard down,” Mermin said. “This is a powerful reminder” that HIV “can gain ground at any time, unless you remain vigilant.”