Indiana took a major step this year with the passage of a law allowing local governments to approve needle exchange programs to help stop the spread of dangerous infectious diseases.
A recent op-ed penned by the state’s chief health official outlined what’s at stake.
The new law is the sort of proactive tool that communities need in order to respond to a problem before it becomes a crisis. Previously, counties had to demonstrate a public health emergency and apply to the state health department for permission before establishing a needle exchange program. And that itself was progress, given that for many years, such programs were illegal in Indiana.
It took an HIV outbreak associated with intravenous drug use in rural Scott County a few years ago — “one of the worst documented outbreaks of HIV among IV users in the past two decades,” according to an official from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — to spur changes in Indiana’s law. Changing certain attitudes about needle exchange programs is another matter.
The CDC endorses needle exchange programs as a way to reduce harm and prevent people who use intravenous drugs from contracting HIV. And the World Health Organization, which also endorses these programs, says there’s no evidence that they exacerbate “injecting drug use at either the individual or societal level.” That hasn’t prevented skepticism and misinformation about needle exchanges.
Then-Gov. Mike Pence, eventually gave the go-ahead for a temporary program in Scott County in 2015, despite longstanding and emphatic opposition to needle exchanges, which he claimed aren’t effective anti-drug policy.
Earlier this year, Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill testified against the needle exchange bill that became law, expressing concern that needle exchanges might become “distribution centers.” State Health Commissioner Jerome Adams, an advocate for needle exchange programs, noted that in Scott County, 96 percent of needles have been returned.
Adams, in a June 23 op-ed in the Lafayette Journal & Courier, addressed this public health tool — and some reaction to it — head on. Noting that the “staggering” statistics in Scott County, where 219 people have been diagnosed with HIV, he explained that “the toll would be much worse” if not for the syringe exchange program.
He wrote, “No matter how uncomfortable syringe service programs make us, they are proven to save lives …”
And that’s something that all Hoosiers, including those skeptical of needle exchange programs, should support.
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