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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana communities facing an HIV epidemic tied to intravenous drug use will have a way to implement needle-exchange programs under a measure Gov. Mike Pence signed into law Tuesday, as the number of confirmed cases in a rural outbreak grew to nearly 150.
The new law allows areas that can prove they're in the midst of an epidemic to seek approval from the state health commissioner to launch a needle exchange. Pence supported the proposal that legislators endorsed last week, even though he's said he opposes needle exchanges as part of an anti-drug policy.
Health officials blame needle sharing among intravenous drug users for driving the HIV outbreak centered in Scott County, which is about 30 miles north of Louisville, Kentucky. The state's Joint Information Center on Tuesday reported 146 confirmed HIV cases and three preliminary positive HIV cases in southern Indiana for an increase of four cases since Friday.
Pence said the new law, which takes effect immediately, will give communities a way to help respond to such outbreaks.
"This measure will save lives and give public health officials the broadest range of options to confront this and other public health emergencies in the future," Pence said in a statement. "Hoosiers may be assured that our administration will continue to work tirelessly to confront the crisis in Scott County in a compassionate and focused way until public health and public safety are restored."
Health officials say 223 people are now taking part in a needle-exchange program authorized only for Scott County in March under an executive order Pence has extended until May 24. That program has distributed nearly 9,500 clean needles in the county, where participants have returned about 8,200 used needles.
Democratic state Rep. Terry Goodin, who lives in the Scott County city of Austin, said he was grateful that Pence signed the proposal and believed the state needed to take such a step to help protect public health.
"You have to think that of all those needles that have been exchanged, at some point would've gone to someone and infected a new person or two or three," Goodin said. "So I would say that it's had to have had an impact."
Health officials have tied the HIV cases in Scott County and adjacent Jackson County to needle sharing among people who injected a liquefied form of the painkiller Opana.
Under the new law, local officials must show that an epidemic is spreading through IV drug use and that an exchange program would be part of an appropriate public health response.
Opponents have argued that the bill could hinder drug-treatment efforts and create a legal defense for people arrested for possessing drug paraphernalia. But health officials repeatedly cited studies showing that needle exchanges are effective tools in curbing outbreaks.
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