Why Scott County? An in-depth look at the HIV epidemic that's hi - WDRB 41 Louisville News

Why Scott County? An in-depth look at the HIV epidemic that's hit so close to home

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Doreena Baker, a recovering addict, says moving back into Austin, Indiana was "almost like a nightmare." 

"Been clean for four years now," Baker said. "Very hard-core user. Shared needles. Didn't care."

Temptation is outside her door everyday. People say that in the north side of town, drugs run rampant. The recovering Oxycontin addict says it's a daily struggle to stay sober.

"It's like, you become a slave to it," Baker said. "It's all you think about. That's all you want. You live for it."

Baker says she has Hepatitis C but is HIV-negative. She got clean before getting wrapped up in the outbreak.

Frederick Burton says he has preliminarily tested positive for HIV.

"I had to sign a paper stating that if I didn't tell somebody about it when I had sex with them, or shared a needle with them, it's attempted murder," Burton said. "I just wonder, what about me now? Nobody told me?"

The 42-year-old tells us several years ago, he was prescribed painkillers for issues with his back. He then turned to shooting up Oxycontin and Opana to keep getting high.

"Were you sharing needles?" WDRB News asked. 

"No," Burton replied. "I shared with my wife but nobody else."

Burton says his wife died from complications stemming from IV drug use. He says he takes Percocet, but doesn't use Opana anymore, even though it's easy to get.

"I could throw a rock at four different houses from my front porch to get Opana," he said.

Police know Opana has become the drug of choice in this area. Users melt the pills down to shoot up.

"A lot of it starts out legal, grandma has it in the counter, she's been given the medicine for whatever reason," said Chief Donald Spicer of the Austin Police Department. "Maybe the grandson says, 'Hey grandma, you draw $800 a month, you can get $120 or $140 a pill out of this medicine you have. And ya know, that becomes pretty entertaining to people."

Chief Spicer leads a department of six full-time officers. He says they should have closer to 12, but the tax base doesn't support it. That makes it harder for the force to deal with such a large, deep-rooted problem.

Authorities say there was a spike in overdose deaths in Scott County in 2011. Health officials have tracked high numbers of Hepatitis C for years.

In January, they were notified the number of HIV cases was also higher than normal. By February, they knew there was a problem.

"We never expected to see anything like this and we did at the beginning feel like we were drowning, like we were in over our heads," said Brittany Combs, Scott County Public Health Nurse.

According to data from the Indiana State Department of Health, Marion County, home to Indianapolis, reported 235 new HIV cases last year -- but in rural southern Indiana, many counties with smaller populations had less than five. That was the case for Scott County, but health officials say in the midst of this epidemic, 150 people have now tested positive.

"'Why Scott County?' can be 'Why Fill-in-the-blank county?' and those answers will be the same," said Dr. Jennifer Walthall, Indiana Deputy Health Commissioner. "One, we have an economy that is resource poor. We need more jobs, we need to grow the economy here. There's a culture of drug use that's been prevalent for a long time, and as that culture grows, so does the consequences of drug use."

This community has been trying to address the underlying issues for some time. Scott County has been ranked the least healthy county in Indiana for the last six years, and community leaders created a coalition in response. That Robert Wood Johnson Foundation study weighs factors like unemployment, graduation rates, the number of health providers when compiling the list.

With federal, state and local support rolling in, there's now an HIV clinic in Austin and what's being called a "one-stop-shop" for people who need resources, like help getting into substance abuse treatment.

"They're helping me get my food stamps, Medicaid and gonna help me get housing, my own place," Burton said.

A needle exchange program is also up and running to help contain the spread.

Officials have given out and taken back thousands of syringes. Health officials say some users are shooting up more than a dozen times a day.

People who participate in the program can't be arrested if they're found with a needle.

"We had to write the program ourselves and nobody's ever done that before," Combs said.

Tammy Breeding, an Austin resident, believes criminal activity has picked up in her neighborhood recently.

"I've found needles in the ditches," she said. "They're out here driving high, they're on mopeds high, they're walking high -- it's like the walking dead out here at nighttime."

She's posted signs around her home and carries a gun to keep her family safe.

"My kids -- they're under the age of 11 -- see prostitutes getting picked up by different people and they know what they are and what they do because I explain it to them," she said. "And the drug traffic from house and house."

But Breeding is determined to stay.

"We're going to take it back," she said. "I'm not saying that we're going to try. We are taking it back."

"The whole county is coming together and they're all doing whatever is necessary to stop this outbreak," Combs said. "And that's what I want people to remember."

"I want people to remember us by our willingness to attack a problem head-on as one unit and working together to get those results," Chief Spicer said. "A lot of resources that came in here, we're going to take advantage of them. There's going to be a lot of positive out of this problem were having now."

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