HIV outbreak linked to needle sharing

An outbreak of HIV in southern Indiana, including Jackson County, has grown rapidly to more than 40 cases.

Amanda Turney, deputy director of the Office of Public Affairs with the Indiana State Department of Health, confirmed Tuesday morning there are now 44 HIV-positive cases and one preliminary positive case.

Less than two weeks ago, those numbers stood at 26 confirmed and four preliminary cases.

The outbreak has been linked to needle sharing by people using the prescription drug Opana, an opioid painkiller more powerful than Oxycontin, officials said. A small number of cases have been linked to sexual transmission.

No further information was available from the state, but Turney said the department is following up with contacts in Scott, Perry, Clark, Washington and Jackson counties.

There is some indication the outbreak, which started in December, is centered in the small city of Austin, which has battled issues with drug use throughout the years and prostitution in more recent years. Austin is about 20 miles south of Seymour.

Some of those infected are prostitutes, and others are inmates in local jails or prisons, the state reported. Those infected range in age from 20 to 56, but most are in their mid-30s.

Indiana sees about 500 new HIV cases annually, and as of early 2013, nearly 11,000 residents had either HIV or AIDS, according to state statistics.

The exact number of cases in each county is not being released due to privacy concerns.

Scott County Public Health Nurse Brittany Combs said most of the cases are Scott County residents, and that the county has been battling drug use for years.

“That part isn’t new,” she said. “Our Hepatitis C cases have gone off the charts. There is a lot of needle sharing going on.”

She also confirmed a couple of the cases are commercial sex workers, but the majority of those infected have said they used Opana, she added.

What does surprise her about the outbreak is the high number of cases.

“In the six years I’ve been with the health department, we’ve always seen less than five cases of HIV here,” she said. “So this is a huge deal.”

Combs said it’s believed an acute case of HIV in the county is to blame for the outbreak. An acute case is a new case and therefore more virulent, she said.

The Scott County Health Department is working to offer more HIV testing and make the public more educated about the disease.

“We are pushing people to get tested and reminding them to get retested because it can take up to three months to show up,” she said.

In the past, the department has not been able to offer HIV testing and referred patients to Clark County. But in response to the outbreak, that is changing, Combs said.

“We have added a tester here on Mondays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., and we are working on getting one in Austin, too,” she said. “A doctor’s office has agreed to let us use their office for space.”

For HIV testing locations and information about HIV care coordination, call the state health department’s HIV services hotline at 866-588-4948.

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January Rutherford is a reporter for The (Seymour) Tribune. She can be reached at jrutherford@tribtown.com or 812-523-7069.