Scott Co. doctors hoping for government help to deter spread of - WDRB 41 Louisville News

Scott Co. doctors hoping for government help to deter spread of HIV

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AUSTIN, Ind. (WDRB) -- Scott County, Indiana, is ground zero of an HIV outbreak right now and leaders there are going to the state capitol Wednesday to try to come up with solutions.

Scott County leaders are hoping for an emergency order to allow a clean needle exchange program in Austin, where officials say IV drug use is a huge problem.

"When they share a dirty needle with someone else, that tainted blood is just filled with HIV virus," said Dr. William Cooke.

The number of confirmed HIV cases in southern Indiana is now up to 55, and most of them are in Austin -- where Dr. Cooke is a primary care physician.

"We recognize there's been a problem for well over ten years. That has been slowly, I think, growing worse," Dr. Cooke told WDRB.

Dr. Cooke says more than half of the deaths in Scott County are attributed to drug overdoses.

Currently, it's illegal to have a syringe in Indiana without a prescription but Dr. Cooke, along with other local doctors, want a change in state law to help contain the spread of HIV.

"We want to identify who is HIV positive quickly and early, get them into treatment as quickly as possible so that we can reduce that viral load and reduce the spreading of that disease through dirty needles. That's where the needle exchange program comes in," he explained.

Another solution, officials say, is attacking the problem on the streets where drug addicts are sharing dirty needles.

Austin city officials say Church and Rural Streets are just two hot spots for illegal activity but in order to make arrests, police have to witness an illegal act. 

Scott County Prosecuting Attorney Jason Mount says locking everyone up isn't going to solve the entire issue but it could help.

"Not that they all need to go to prison or jail but with this population, a lot of times, the only time they're going to reach out for help, medical help or substance abuse or addiction help is when they're interdicted by law enforcement," said Mount.

Mount says he thinks it's too soon to know if a clean needle exchange is what Scott County needs.

"I do understand we're in an emergency situation here but I just want to make sure we've thought through those permutations as they apply to enforcement and how we're going to use those policies on the street level for drug crime," he told WDRB.

Mount says illegal drug use has been a problem in Scott County for a long time and there are several reasons for it.

"We've known for a long time we've got an epidemic here but the epidemic hasn't necessarily been an HIV epidemic. It's been a drug use epidemic and there's a lot of reasons for that; under employment, under education, poor health, poor transportation. Those reasons go on and on and on and on."

Mount says it's frustrating because drug cases don't get very far in court anymore.

"The Indiana code was modified with respect to drug crimes and a lot of the penalties for possession of drugs and also a lot of penalties for dealing drugs have been greatly reduced," Mount said. "A lot of the tools prosecutors had to lock up some of the dealers have been taken away from us."

While they push for that emergency order in Indianapolis, officials are encouraging residents to get tested.

It's free and confidential and health officials are even willing to make home visits.

Scott County doctors will present to government officials at the State Capitol Wednesday afternoon.

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