Indiana county hit by HIV outbreak to scrap needle exchange

SCOTTSBURG, Ind. (AP) — Health officials blasted a southern Indiana county commission’s decision to end the state’s first needle exchange program, which was established six years ago to help quell an HIV outbreak.

Dozens of supporters of the exchange packed a meeting Wednesday where Scott County commissioners voted 2-1 to end the program by the end of this year.

Scott County’s needle exchange began in 2015 after then-Gov. Mike Pence authorized Indiana’s first-ever effort to provide drug addicts with clean needles. At the time, the rural county was at the center of an HIV outbreak driven by illegal intravenous drug use that eventually infected more than 200 people.

Health officials credit the program, which is meant to discourage needle-sharing, with helping drive down the county’s number of new HIV cases to fewer than five last year.

But County Commissioner Mike Jones, who voted to end the program, said he thinks the exchange could be contributing to drug abuse, overdoses and discarded needles. He cited the county’s 74 overdose deaths since 2017.

Dr. Jerome Adams, who was Indiana’s health commissioner during the HIV outbreak and later served as the U.S. surgeon general under President Donald Trump, wrote on Twitter that he was “heartbroken” by the commissioners’ decision.

“I’ve shared toil and tears with the many harm reduction advocates in this community,” Adams wrote. “We’ve got to keep working to win over hearts and minds.”

Indiana’s health commissioner, Dr. Kristina Box, warned last month that ending the exchange would inevitably lead to a rise in HIV and hepatitis C cases.

Dr. Will Cooke, who during the HIV outbreak was the only physician practicing in the Scott County town of Austin, the community at the center of the outbreak, said during Wednesday’s meeting that the exchange had helped direct addicts into treatment.

“We’ve had people tell us that the first time they’ve ever felt cared for in their entire life was when they walked into the clinic or when they’ve walked into the Syringe Service Program,” he said. “And that’s when they start caring about themselves, when they feel cared for.”

Rick Williams was among several people who said during the meeting that they were once addicted but got treatment through the exchange as they got clean needles.

“It kept me clean,” Williams said. “And it directed me to recovery.”

Kelly Hans, an HIV prevention outreach coordinator with the Scott County Health Department who runs the exchange, said she felt as though community members’ voices weren’t heard.

“I’m sad. I’m angry. I’m hurt,” she said in a statement after the vote.