LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) – The first weekly session at the Incident Command Center in Scott County was packed with journalists ready to report the latest on the HIV crisis in southern Indiana, but officials say the real goal of the meeting was to catch the public’s attention.
“The primary spread of HIV in the state of Indiana and the United States is sexually transmitted,” said Dr. Jennifer Walthall from Indiana’s Health Department.
Yet in this small working class city, an HIV outbreak of epidemic proportions is tied to needle sharing among drug users. In a town with 4,200 residents, 150 have been diagnosed with the disease.
“Given that this is predominantly IV drug use is an anomaly. It’s why it’s received so much attention. What we are very concerned about is the secondary spread coming through sexual contact,” Walthall said.
AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) has stepped in to work closely with officials in Indiana by providing one of AHF’s mobile testing vans that will offer free HIV testing throughout the city.
“The more people know, the more they are reaching out to be tested when they realize what the risk factors are,” Walthall said.
The Deputy Health Commissioner, the Health Department, AHF and Austin police are all working together to battle an issue not like any other they have had to face before. Not only are they educating the community but city officials are getting a lesson in HIV safety and care as well.
“We did not know the scope of the needle sharing population in this area. I think the gravity of the situation was understood very quickly and that’s why the response was so comprehensive and so rapid,” Walthall explained.
After declaring an emergency, Gov. Pence allowed the county health department to create a temporary and controversial needle exchange program currently set to expire on May 24. Local officials hope to keep the program running longer under a new law signed by Pence, which permits communities in the midst of a health crisis tied to injected drugs to seek approval for a needle exchange.
In addition to the needle exchange, numerous services are being offered to those in need. The state health department opened a One-Stop Shop Outreach Center in coordination with local partners and other state agencies. Services provided include: access to state-issued ID cards, birth certificates, job counseling and local training, enrollment in HIP 2.0 insurance, HIV testing, HIV car coordination, substance abuse referrals, and vaccinations against tetanus, Hepatitis A and B.
“It’s not a fix that will be fast but putting these elements in place now I think gives us hope that Austin will be a strong city,” Walthall said.