H.I.V. Outbreak Causes Indiana Governor to Declare Health Emergency

March 27, 2015 AT 10:00 AM

An outbreak of H.I.V. in southeastern Indiana prompted the governor on Thursday to declare a public health emergency as officials worked to stop the spread of the virus that causes AIDS.

Officials said that 71 cases of H.I.V. identified since mid-December have been traced to intravenous use of a prescription painkiller in Scott County north of Louisville, Ky. Nine more cases are still under investigation, and state health officials predicted that more would appear in coming weeks. The governor authorized a short-term exchange program that would provide drug users with access to sterile needles so that contaminated needles were less likely to be shared.

Gov. Mike Pence, a Republican, has long opposed such programs. But he said that the outbreak, which was first identified in late January, had reached epidemic proportions, justifying the action. “This is all hands on deck,” Mr. Pence said. “This is a very serious situation.”

Mr. Pence’s order, which is in effect for 30 days, would allow for a needle-exchange program within Scott County if one is requested by local officials.

Scott County has about 24,000 residents, 19 percent of whom live below the poverty line, a rate higher than the state average. Mr. Pence said that Scott County typically sees about five new cases of H.I.V. a year.

The governor said the cluster of cases diagnosed so far had been traced to intravenous drug use, with the virus most likely spreading as people shared infected needles. He said those infected had illegally used Opana, a powerful prescription pain medication prescribed only in pill form. Opana is marketed by Endo Pharmaceuticals as a long-acting formulation of oxymorphone. It is prescribed less frequently than oxycodone and hydrocodone because of its strength. When used illicitly, it can provide a potent high.

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