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Indiana declares emergency over HIV outbreak

INDIANAPOLIS -- The governor of Indiana declared a public health emergency Thursday in a county shaken by a recent outbreak of HIV infections.

Gov. Mike Pence also authorized a short-term needle exchange program to help contain the outbreak in Scott County, in the southern part of the state about 30 miles north of Louisville, Kentucky.

Health officials say there have been 79 new HIV infections confirmed since January in a county with only about 24,000 residents. Most of the cases are believed to be linked to illegal drug use and needle sharing, especially among abusers of injectable prescription painkillers. Normally, Scott County sees about five new HIV cases a year.

Pence ordered the state health department to set up a command center to coordinate HIV and substance abuse treatment and establish a mobile unit to enroll people in a state-run health program.

Indiana bars needle exchange programs, but Pence authorized a short-term exchange on the advice of federal and state health officials.

"This is a public health emergency and I'm listening to my health department, I'm listening to the Centers for Disease Control and I'll make my decision based on the best science and the best way we can stop this virus and stop this outbreak in its tracks," Pence said Wednesday after meeting with local officials in Scottsburg, the county's seat.

"Governor Pence opposes needle exchange as anti-drug policy and he stands by current law," said deputy state health commissioner Jennifer Walthall. However, he agreed to back "a focused limited program for the sole purpose of addressing this epidemic in Scott County."

Needle-exchange programs allow people to turn in used hypodermic needles and get clean ones in an effort to keep diseases such as HIV and hepatitis from spreading.

The number of HIV cases in the county is expected to rise. Officials are trying to contact as many as 100 people tied to those with confirmed infections of the virus that causes AIDS.

"With the amount of drug use that's happening and the intravenous needle-sharing that's going on, if someone who's highly infectious becomes part of that sharing network, that infection can transmit very rapidly," said state epidemiologist Pam Pontones.

She said the vast majority of the people who've become infected during the outbreak shared a syringe with someone else while injecting a liquid form of the prescription painkiller Opana.

Although needle exchange programs are controversial, public health officials believe they can make a difference. "What we're seeing is that those who participate in needle exchanges actually reduce their needle use, and the HIV prevalence in those populations is lower," Beth Meyerson, co-director of the Rural Center for AIDS/STD Prevention and an assistant professor of public health at Indiana University, told CBS4Indy.

The state has also launched a public awareness campaign to focus on drug treatment, infection prevention, safe sex, needle disposal and HIV testing and treatment.