HIV OUTBREAK: In tiny Austin, needle exchange is controversial



By Andi TenBarge

Until the news of the HIV outbreak in Scott County broke, the area's drug problem was "a hush, hush thing."

That's what Tammy Breeding says.

Breeding, a single mother of three, lives in the heart of Austin, a Scott County town of just 4,200 people that is ground zero for the outbreak. She said at about noon each day, intravenous drug users emerge in her neighborhood and start scouting out their next hit of Opana, a painkiller and the common drug abused in the area.

"You've got one who is walking up and down the road to this house or that house – because the busier the traffic at the house you know something's going on," Breeding said. "It's just not safe."

But the problem, she said, has grown worse since Gov. Mike Pence issued an executive order to make clean needle exchanges legal in Scott County for 30 days, an effort to stem the spread of HIV. And she and her neighbors are exasperated. She says the addicts don't want help.

"Go get a job. Get a life because there is hope for those people if they find it and they're not wanting to find it," Breeding said. "They're wanting to get that next high on whatever they can get ahold of and it's really frustrating."

Pence has concerns about needle exchange as well.

But the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention recommended the program to help battle the virus, which has spread to more than 140 people, nearly all through intravenous drug use. Typically, Scott County would see just five or fewer new HIV cases each year. That's why state officials have labeled the outbreak an "epidemic."

And it's one that has affected the entire Austin community – even all of Scott County. Kids are talking about it in schools. Parents and teachers are facing tough questions about drugs and disease. Rumors are flying.

"It's inescapable," said Tammy Davis, who teaches Spanish and provides emergency medical training at Scottsburg High School.

The needle exchange program

A one-stop shop in Austin is the home base for the needle exchange program. IV drug users who are enrolled in the program can bring their dirty needles and exchange them for clean needles. Health officials hope this will help stop the HIV virus from spreading.

Brittany Combs, the Scott County public health nurse, said the program is designed so IV users can obtain a week's worth of clean needles at a time.

"We've set it up weekly so they have to come back every week to get clean needles for the week," Combs said.

Initially, health officials underestimated how many clean needles they would need for the program. They asked users how many times a day they inject, which determines how many needles they receive.

"It was shocking to me that some of these people shoot up 10 to 15 times a day," Combs said. "We had no clue."


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