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Damien Center unveils new mobile unit to fight spread of HIV and drug use

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — The Damien Center has unveiled a new mobile unit to fight the spread of HIV and drug use in Indiana.

It will soon begin using the mobile unit for its first safe syringe exchange program to help reduce the spread of HIV and hepatitis C among injection drug users in Marion County. On Tuesday, the organization joined the Marion County Public Health Department to announce the launch of the new program and unveil the new mobile unit.

Harm reduction specialists will use the new mobile unit three days a week, delivering safe syringe exchange services into the community.

“Our team is very good and qualified at helping people understand how to be safe and how to make use that they dispose of the needles safely,” Alan Witchey, the president and CEO of the Damien Center, said.

The center will also provide HIV, STI, and hepatitis C rapid screening. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says in 2018, Indiana reported the highest rate of hepatitis C in the country.

“Our rates of hepatitis C and HIV are much higher than the national average, so programs like this will help reduce that burden on the healthcare system,” Witchey said.

Health officials say the HIV epidemic is disproportionately affecting the black community.

“We have to look at what locations do we have, resources there, what locations can we work with the neighborhood associations, critical leaders in these social networks, in order to direct where our resources should be,” Marion County Public Health Department Director Dr. Virginia Caine said.

The goal is to reduce the number of new HIV infections in Marion County by at least 90% by 2030. The Damien Center says that would mean preventing around 2,000 new HIV infections in the county in the next 10 years.

“We really want something like this to help go into the community and meet people where they are and make them feel comfortable and help them access the services that they need,” Witchey said.

The Damien Center will also serve as a fixed safe syringe program site at least two days a week. Two harm reduction specialists will be there to provide access to sterile needles and syringes, harm reduction kits, referrals for substance use disorder treatment and more.

The safe syringe exchange program will start in mid to late November. The Damien Center will post locations where the mobile unit will be on their website. From now until the safe syringe exchange program begins, the Damien Center will use the mobile unit to hand out harm reduction kits and offer other services.