INDIANAPOLIS — The number of people infected with HIV in Southern Indiana continues to climb, reaching 150 as of Thursday, but state health officials say the tide in the epidemic may finally be turning.
State health officials, working with federal employees and employees from other state health departments, have contacted 385 of 411 people who are at risk of having contracted the virus from others who have already tested positive for it.
Officials hope to ensure that anyone infected knows his or her status and does not pass on the virus to others. Health officials say they have seen the number of those at risk leveling off in recent days.
“We have seen a drop-off in new contacts,” said Jennifer Walthall, deputy state health commissioner. “We feel that we are starting to get a handle on where we are in the outbreak.”
Next week, Walthall said, disease intervention specialists will do a “blitz” and try to reach all of the remaining contacts.
The One Stop Shop in Austin, the epicenter of the outbreak, has tested 206 individuals for HIV since it opened at the end of March.
Since that time, 250 people have participated in a clean needle exchange program made possible by an emergency public health order. The program has handed out more than 10,480 needles.
Originally established for 30 days, the program has been extended through May 24 and could become semi-permanent. Gov. Mike Pence this week signed a measure to allow counties that believe that a hepatitis C or HIV outbreak is occurring to ask the Indiana State Department of Health for permission to run such a needle-exchange program
Scott County already has scheduled an initial meeting for county officials, the first step in the process, said Brittany Combs, a public health nurse for the Scott County Public Health Department. The next step will be to hold a public hearing and then the county, located about a half-hour north of Louisville, plans to request permission to extend the needle exchange program for at least a year.
“Then we can renew that process and extend it longer if need be,” Combs said.
Meanwhile, the California-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation, the nation’s largest nonprofit provider of HIV and AIDS medical care, plans to open a permanent, full-service HIV clinic in Austin to help combat the outbreak.
Officials with the foundation, which works in 36 countries, said Wednesday it will fund and operate a clinic at the same Main Street location of Austin’s only private doctor, William Cooke, who is currently hosting a once-a-week HIV clinic.
Once it opens sometime in the coming weeks, infectious-disease specialists will provide treatment and medication alongside behavioral health and social service providers, said Garith Fulham, Midwest director of policy and advocacy for the foundation.
Contributing: Chris Kenning of The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal