HIV Epidemic Gripping Indiana, Governor Mike Pence Declares Public Health Emergency

“This could explode everywhere in Indiana."

Governor Mike Pence is preparing to declare a public health emergency in Austin, Indiana, as the HIV rate in the town of about 4,300 continues to skyrocket.

Experts report the number of cases has gone from 26 at the start of the month to 72 as of Wednesday—with needle-sharing among intravenous drug users fingered as the culprit.

“We identified long ago there was an undercurrent there that was very unhealthy,” Dr. William Cooke, who runs the only doctor’s office in Austin, told NBC. The mix of poverty and drug addiction, he says, was a recipe for disaster. “We knew it was only a matter of time until HIV set in.”

Investigators from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention arrived in Scott County on Monday to determine if the strain of HIV plaguing the area was a new one.

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“Intravenous drug use has been identified as the mode of infection in nearly all of the 72 confirmed cases,” reports The Washington Post. “The vast majority of those infected shared a syringe with someone else while injecting a liquid form of a prescription painkiller called Opana. All of those infected either live in Scott County or have ties to the
area… but the disease could easily spread.”

Gov. Pence is considering a needle-exchange program to address the crisis—such programs are currently illegal in Indiana. Pence’s plan would only last 30 days, and would only legalize needle swaps in Scott County.

Doctors worry the plan is too limited. “This could explode everywhere in Indiana—it just started in Scott County,” says Scottsburg doctor Shane Avery.

Critics complain that Pence’s decision to slash Planned Parenthood of Indiana’s budget forced the closing of clinics in rural areas like Austin, sometimes the only places where locals can get HIV information, testing and treatment. (Austin has just one doctor’s office.)

Perhaps the governor is too busy signing anti-gay “religious freedoms” bills into law to deal with the crisis adequately?

Dan Avery is a writer-editor who focuses on culture, breaking news and LGBT rights. His work has appeared in Newsweek, The New York Times, Time Out New York, The Advocate and elsewhere.