March 26, 2015 / 4:25 PM / 5 years ago

UPDATE 1-Indiana governor permits needle exchange to fight HIV outbreak

(Adds officials calling it the biggest outbreak in state history, raises total cases)

By Steve Bittenbender

March 26 (Reuters) - Indiana’s governor on Thursday authorized the short-term use of a needle-exchange program in a rural county to combat the biggest outbreak of HIV infections in state history, all tied to intravenous prescription drug abuse.

Republican Governor Mike Pence said he personally opposes needle-exchange programs but signed an emergency order allowing one recommended by federal health officials to be used in Scott County in southern Indiana near the Kentucky border.

Scott County has recorded 80 HIV cases since December, all tied to injected drugs. Under the order, which lasts 30 days, the county can set up a needle-exchange program with the state health department limited to suppressing the outbreak. HIV is the virus that causes AIDS.

Pence said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended the program and he was willing to support one if county officials want it.

“This is all hands on deck,” Pence told a news conference.

Such programs provide intravenous drug users with sterile needles in an effort to prevent infections from the sharing of contaminated needles. Some opponents of such programs say needle exchanges encourage drug use.

The county in past years has reported fewer than five new HIV cases annually, according to state statistics.

A state health department spokeswoman said this is believed to be the worst HIV outbreak on record for Indiana. It is unique also because officials say all the cases have been tied to intravenous drug use.

Initial cases were diagnosed after people injected themselves with the powerful painkiller Opana, which contains oxymorphone, officials said. People also have become infected after injecting other drugs including methamphetamine, officials said.

Scott County officials say they have been fighting narcotics, and in particular prescription drug use, for several years, and the HIV outbreak has raised the level of concern.

Since December, the county about 35 miles north of Louisville, Kentucky, has had 71 confirmed HIV cases and nine preliminary positive results. Officials fear up to 100 cases could be identified. (Reporting by Steve Bittenbender in Louisville, Kentucky; Writing by David Bailey; Editing by Will Dunham)

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