Health officials encouraged by needle exchange program

Organizers set up needle exchange center in Austin Indiana. (WISH Photo)

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — The number of HIV cases related to IV drug use in Scott County since the beginning of the year is on the rise – now at 89. Of those, 84 have been confirmed with five cases pending.

An emergency needle exchange program was set up three days ago but health officials say only four people have taken advantage of it. While the number utilizing the needle exchange might seem low at just four, health officials say those four have turned in 300 needles in the last three days.

The state health department opened a One-Stop Shop at the Austin Community Outreach Center March 30. Services include HIV testing, substance abuse referrals and vaccinations against tetanus and Hepatitis A and B.

To date 133 people have taken advantage of the services – with 27 getting HIV tests, 30 receiving immunizations and 46 enrolling in the state’s Healthy Indiana Insurance plan.

It is that last number – the 46 now enrolled in HIP 2.0 – that is important health officials say. Governor Mike Pence had encouraged more people to sign up so they could receive free HIV testing, etc. offered by the plan.

As for just four people taking advantage of the free needles, health officials say they’re actually encouraged.

“That doesn’t seem like a big number but the people that came in were very vocal in the community and we’re hoping they spread the word,” said Brittany Combs, Scott County Health Department public health nurse. “And it’s not about quantity, it’s about quality. One woman stated to me she would use the same needle for up to two weeks – almost 168 times she would use one needle.”

State health officials say they do expect the number of HIV cases in Scott County to rise. But they hope word of the outreach center and needle exchange continues to spread.

The needle exchange program was implemented after Pence declared a public health emergency in Scott County in late March. It is set to expire April 25. There is no word yet on if it will need to be extended another 30 days and, if so, if the Governor would grant the extension.

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