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Allen County plans needle exchange program

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – Allen County’s health department will starting putting plans in place for a needle exchange program after an HIV outbreak in southern Indiana that stemmed from drug users sharing needles.

“I think what we need to be concerned about is if the cases in Scott County start moving, start appearing in other parts of the state or if we, God forbid, start having an outbreak of our own. I want to be ready to go,” Dr. Deborah McMahan, the Allen County health commissioner, said.

The health department’s executive board just gave McMahan the green light to put together a plan for a needle exchange program where drug users could bring in used needles and get clean ones.

“Needle exchange programs are very effective in reducing HIV transmission rates,” Kandace Kellly, the director of outreach services for the Positive Resource Center, said.

The HIV outbreak in Scott County is now at 135 cases. Based on county populations, that would be equivalent to 2,053 cases in Allen County. Earlier this week, Governor Mike Pence extended the temporary needle exchange program there for another 30 days. Last Friday, health officials said so far the program’s given out around 5,300 clean syringes to 86 people.

Some argue needle exchange programs promote drug use by providing paraphernalia to addicts, but health officials said the idea’s been around for decades and extensive studies prove otherwise.

“People who have access to clean needles are more likely to go into treatment to get the help they need than people who are sharing needles,” Kelly said.

McMahan said needle exchange programs are effective in reducing HIV and Hepatitis C transmissions.

“The CDC would never promote something that would exacerbate the problem. They’ve studied this and it’s their recommendation that these are effective tools to minimize the risk of HIV. It doesn’t encourage or promote drug use and we know a certain percentage of people that when exposed and offered addiction treatment go for that,” McMahan said.

If an exchange program were to start in Allen County, it would also offer HIV testing, counseling and referrals to drug treatment centers.

“Ideally, people would stop using, but people are going to do what they’re going to do and you want to give them the skills to reduce their risk and information on how they can prevent it,” Kelly said.

Since 1989, the federal government has banned public funding of needle exchange programs. McMahan said they are still working on how an exchange would be funded if one is started.

A bill in the statehouse would allow the 23 Indiana counties with the highest Hepatitis C rates to create needle exchange programs. Other counties with lower rates could establish programs with approval from county officials. Governor Pence said he generally opposes needle exchange programs and the authorized the one in Scott County as an emergency situation only. It’s not clear if he’d sign a bill that implements them around the state.

McMahan would like to see a law that allows officials in every county to decide what is best for their own county. Right now, Allen County is just putting a plan in place and no program is actually starting yet.