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Faced with a growing HIV outbreak tied to intravenous drug use, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence overrode state law and his own anti-drug policies to authorize a needle-exchange program to help contain new infections in a rural county.
More than 72 new HIV cases have been reported among people who either live in southern Indiana’s Scott County or have connections to the area. Seven additional people have preliminary positive HIV infections.
The new cases are spreading fast: A month ago, there were 26 cases in the county. All of the cases are tied to intravenous drug use.
Pence had previously declared a state of emergency in Scott County, which usually sees only about five HIV cases each year, according to health officials.
The move was uncharacteristic for Pence, a far-right conservative who also signed into law today a controversial bill designed to legalize discrimination against LGBT people for religious reasons. Under the new law, which was passed overwhelmingly by the Legislature, fundamentalist Christians in Indiana can now fire LGBT people and refuse to rent, provide services or credit to them without facing lawsuits. Critics say the law would also permit people to cite religion to discriminate against Jews, Muslims, blacks and other minorities.
Ironically, same-sex marriage is legal in the state.
“Today, many people of faith feel their religious liberty is under attack by government action,” Pence said in signing the law.
But the governor put aside his right-wing ideology temporarily to allow the needle exchange program after being persuaded to do so by the state’s public health department and the federal Centers for Disease Control.
Needle-exchange programs allow people to turn in used hypodermic needles and get clean ones in an effort to keep diseases such as HIV and hepatitis from spreading. Such programs are illegal in Indiana.
The number of HIV cases in Scott County is expected to rise. Officials are trying to contact as many as 100 people tied to those with confirmed infections of the virus that causes AIDS.
Indiana has launched an awareness campaign that includes billboards and social media. State health commissioner Dr. Jerome Adams said a mobile unit will be sent to the county with resources to help combat the outbreak, which spreads fast when people infected with the virus share needles with others.
In Scott County, the drug at the root of the epidemic is a liquid form of the prescription painkiller Opana.
State health officials and staff from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that the outbreak “is an indicator of a larger problem,” which is rampant IV drug use in the economically depressed region of the state.