Proactive steps best on needle exchanges

South Bend Tribune

One of the major wins to come out of a less than stellar legislative session was the bipartisan law that allows Indiana counties to establish needle-exchange programs.

The law, a reaction to the HIV crisis stemming from the sharing of dirty needles in Scott County, passed on a bipartisan vote and was signed into law by Gov. Mike Pence, who opposed needle exchanges and earlier had threatened to veto such a bill.

A few weeks ago, Scott County became the first county to use the law to distribute clean needles to IV drug users for the next year.

We commend legislators for stepping up to react to a desperate, pressing situation. It’s the reactive nature of the solution that has invited some concern, however. In order to receive approval for the needle exchange, the law requires a county to prove it’s in the midst of an epidemic.

More than a few have wondered if waiting for an HIV outbreak to happen, and then responding to it, is the best approach.

Recently, the Tippecanoe County Board of Health sent a letter to Gov. Mike Pence and Dr. Jerome Adams, the state health commissioner, asking them to relax the requirements to implement a needle-exchange program.

“Instead of waiting for an epidemic to occur, if we see a trend, (county health departments) could initiate a needle-exchange program at that point and prevent it from reaching epidemic levels like it did in Scott County,” Dr. Jeremy Adler, Tippecanoe County health officer, told the Lafayette Journal and Courier.

The need to be proactive couldn’t be clearer. The factors that helped create the crisis in Scott County — a lack of available testing locations and public education about HIV prevention, and deep cuts to health care funding — are hardly unique. Beth Meyerson, co-director of the Rural Center for AIDS/STD prevention at Indiana University, has said that she wouldn’t be surprised if the HIV crisis spreads to other rural areas in the coming months.

County officials shouldn’t have to wait for that to happen before they can act.

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