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US state approves 1st needle-exchange program under new law

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The central state of Indiana approved a yearlong needle-exchange program Thursday for a rural county at the center of an HIV outbreak that spurred a new state law allowing such programs to curb the spread of diseases among intravenous drug users.

State health Commissioner Dr. Jerome Adams' approval for Scott County includes a public health emergency declaration that will allow it to operate a needle-exchange through May 24, 2016. The southeastern Indiana county has operated a temporary needle-exchange since early April under executive orders Gov. Mike Pence signed in response to the largest HIV outbreak in state history.

Scott County, north of Louisville, Kentucky, is the first to receive state approval for a needle-exchange under the new law that ended Indiana's ban on needle-exchanges. That law provides for such exchanges if a community proves it's facing an HIV or hepatitis C epidemic fueled by intravenous drug use.

Needle-exchanges provide IV drug users with clean syringes and collect used needles to help prevent the spread of diseases. Scott County's newly-approved program under the new law starts Monday.

State epidemiologist Pam Pontones said Thursday that 160 people have tested positive for HIV — one in a preliminary test — since December. Nearly all of those cases have been in the poverty-stricken county, which typically has about five new cases each year of the virus that causes AIDS.

Most of the infected IV drug users had injected a liquefied form of the painkiller Opana.

Adams testified Thursday before the U.S. House's Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, telling lawmakers the nation's woes with rampant abuse of prescription opioids require a multi-pronged approach. He said officials need to address homelessness, hunger, health insurance access and integrating former inmates back into society after incarceration.

Access to education and jobs are also key issues, he told the panel.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an alert to health departments nationwide last month, urging them to take steps to identify and track HIV and hepatitis C cases to prevent outbreaks similar to Indiana's, which was detected in January.

As of Thursday, 171 people were participating in Scott County's needle-exchange program, which has distributed nearly 17,000 clean needles.

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