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Lawmakers contemplate effectiveness of needle exchange bill

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) – An HIV outbreak in Southern Indiana has lawmakers contemplating a bill that could keep more of them from happening.

It took an executive order by Governor Mike Pence to allow a needle exchange program in Scott County. It lasts until April 25.

Now the question is whether any at-risk county should have the same opportunity.

Health officials in Scott County say the exchange program has been successful at keeping drug users from contracting the virus. But because of that, some lawmakers worry that it encourages them to keep using rather than quit.

But if there’s one thing both sides can agree, it’s that the epidemic needs to be stopped one way or another.

Packed in boxes stacked high, hypodermic needles are being given out in Scott County, an area plagued by drug use and the consequences from doing so.

“We talked to everybody that we meet about substance abuse and if they’re ready to quit,” said Brittany Combs, Scott Co. Public Health Nurse.

If they’re not ready to quit, they can get free needles through the county’s exchange program.

Governor Mike Pence ordered it after dozens of people contracted HIV from sharing syringes. As of April 14, health officials said 106 people had tested positive for the virus.

“I’ll have to admit, I think the emergency exchange was necessary. It was the right reaction to down in Southern Indiana,” said Senate President Pro Tem David Long.

But would it be the right choice for the entire state? Senator Long isn’t so sure. A bill is on its way to the senate that would allow at-risk counties the chance to start their own exchange programs. Senator Long worries it could promote drug use instead of stopping it.

“The long term, I’ve got to admit that I don’t have an answer for you on that, whether that’s the right approach, whether the senate would support something like that,” he said.

Whether or not it’s approved, health officials in Scott County aren’t wasting any time make sure users don’t get infected. Already they say the exchange is showing positive results. Combs explained how the mobile exchange unit came was used earlier in the week.

“We stopped at one house. We did four people in that home and they all disclosed that they were HIV negative,” she said. “They had been recently tested and were negative and they all four got clean needles to last the week. So if nothing else, we have saved those four people for this week from having to share needles to possibly get HIV.”

Despite being unsure of the bill, Senator Long did say every option to stop the epidemic should be on the table. He added it shouldn’t only be law enforcement’s responsibility to curb drug use.