Hepatitis bigger threat to Jackson County?

Fewer than 1 percent of the 124 inmates in the Jackson County Jail who were voluntarily screened for HIV tested positive, a local law enforcement official said Wednesday.

Sheriff Mike Carothers said he would not release the exact number of cases because he doesn’t want to create an unnecessary panic in the community.

“It’s really not that many, nothing like Scott County has right now,” he said. “It’s less than a percent.”

Carothers said the jail has more cases of hepatitis than HIV.

“That’s where our issues are at,” he said.

Hepatitis can result in cirrhosis or scarring of the liver or liver cancer and also is a very serious disease, said Lin Montgomery with the Jackson County Health Department.

Health officials have confirmed more than 50 cases of hepatitis C in Jackson County with many more cases likely.

The increase in hepatitis is being attributed to the ongoing HIV outbreak in southeast Indiana. That health emergency has caused many people to seek free HIV testing, which has led to more hepatitis being diagnosed, too, Montgomery said.

Neighboring Scott County, and specifically the city of Austin, is at the center of the unprecedented HIV outbreak, which started in December and has made headlines around the nation.

The outbreak is being blamed on needle-sharing among drug users, especially those injecting Opana, a prescription pain killer.

Hepatitis also is spread through sharing needles or syringes to inject drugs, Montgomery said.

As of last week, state health officials reported 84 confirmed positive HIV-related cases and five preliminary positive cases.

Included in the outbreak area are Jackson, Perry, Washington and Clark counties.

Carothers doesn’t believe the HIV issue has migrated, however, because those inmates that tested positive here are from Scott County, he said.

The Jackson County Jail inmates were tested voluntarily over a three-day period recently by the Clark County Health Department, which visited the jail to conduct the testing, Carothers said.

The jail had an average daily inmate count of 206 last month.

Physicians and health care staff who serve the jail have been made aware of those inmates who tested positive, he added.

Clark County Health Department staff members have met with inmates to advise them on what they need to do regarding their health and welfare when they are released from jail.

Carothers said those who tested positive are mostly long-term inmates, and they often don’t take the situation seriously or don’t realize or understand what it means.

When they get out, most are unemployed and lack the level of education needed to get a good job and take care of themselves, he said.

He also is concerned with the expense the jail will incur for providing medication, treatment and other services to inmates with HIV, he said. The jail is funded with tax money.

“They have chosen this lifestyle, and it’s you and I who are going to have to pay financially for their decisions,” he said, referring to drug use. “Whether they are in here and the county is paying for it or they are out on the street and the state is paying for it.”

Carothers said the jail hasn’t changed its procedures for handling inmates in light of the outbreak. Officers and staff continue to take the precautions they always have, he said, including always wearing gloves and sanitizing all surfaces that could come in contact with bodily fluids from an inmate.

“More than anything, I think it’s given us a more heightened awareness of what we are doing,” he said.

Late last month, Gov. Mike Pence declared a public health emergency in Scott County and permitted the Scott County Health Department to conduct a clean needle exchange program. That service is offered to only Scott County residents for a limited time, however.

Those exchanging needles receive counseling and are only provided needles based upon their weekly use, according to a news release from the Indiana State Department of Health. They are then instructed to bring the needles back for proper disposal.

During the exchanges, participants receive substance abuse, mental health and other resources and containers to safely store their used needles until they bring them in for disposal. The program also collects basic demographic information but does not require people to give their names or other private information.

A total of four people have returned around 300 needles and have received 170 in exchange, the state health department reported Tuesday.

Carothers said the program may help reduce the spread of the disease and the number of dirty needles not disposed of properly, but it won’t solve the HIV problem. In some cases, he said, he’s not sure anything will.

“It’s sad that it’s come to this point,” he said.

The state also has opened a One-Stop Shop at the Austin Community Outreach Center to provide Scott County residents with access to a variety of services, including HIV testing, HIV care coordination, substance abuse referrals, vaccinations against other diseases, and even the ability to receive state-issued ID cards, birth certificates and health insurance enrollment.

“The state is very much aware of what is going on and has stepped forward with a plan,” Carothers said.

Since it opened March 30, the One-Stop Shop has tested 27 people for HIV, administered 30 immunizations, issued 11 photo ID cards, referred five people for mental health and substance abuse services, provided 14 birth certificates and enrolled 46 people in the Healthy Indiana Plan.

At a glance

For HIV testing locations and information about HIV care coordination, call the Indiana State Department of Health’s HIV services hotline at 866-588-4948.

One-Stop Shop for HIV and other services: Austin Community Outreach Center, 2277 W. Frontage Road

Open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and noon to 6 p.m. on Sundays.

A free shuttle service is being provided by Grace Covenant Church by calling 317-617-2223.

To make an appointment for HIV testing at any Planned Parenthood clinic, visit plannedparenthood.org or call 1-800-230-PLAN.

Hoosiers who do not have health care coverage or access to a doctor can check availability for the new Healthy Indiana Plan — HIP 2.0 — by visiting HIP.IN.gov or calling 1-877-GET-HIP9.

Individuals seeking help with substance abuse can call the national 24-hour addiction hotline at 1-800-662-HELP.

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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.