In Lake County, concerns of HIV outbreak go hand in hand with heroin epidemic

Posted at 5:30 AM, Feb 03, 2017
and last updated 2017-02-03 05:30:32-05

In the small town of Austin, Indiana, with a population of 4,000 people, a fast moving, deadly virus, managed to terrify everyone living there.

In 2015, in just a matter of months, almost 200 people there were infected with HIV. Every case was traced back to heroin users, sharing needles.

The disease’s spread was so severe and so swift, the outbreak spurred the state's first ever, needle-exchange program. Then-Governor Mike Pence authorized the program in an attempt to tide the surge and get clean needles to addicts who'd otherwise share them with strangers.

“There's just major potential for devastation if we don't get ahead of this,” said Kim Fraser, the Executive Director of the Lake County ADAMHS Board.

In Lake County, there was a record setting 85 drug overdose deaths in 2016, a number that more than doubled from the 42 deaths in 2015. Officials like Fraser are concerned that the dangerous side-effects of heroin use, an HIV outbreak included, are just one injection away.

“We can't just say well if we focus on a needle-exchange program, for example, in the middle of Downtown Cleveland, we're going to solve the problem. We need to be widespread in our prevention and education,” she said.

For now, according to the Ohio Department of Health, new HIV cases stemming from intravenous drug use are contained to Ohio's three major metropolitan counties. In recent years, 42 to 43 new cases arose in Cleveland, Cincinnati and Columbus. Not a single new case of HIV in Lake County has been linked to heroin use and as a result, says Fraser, it's hard to convince lawmakers to support something like a needle-exchange program, if HIV isn't widespread yet.

“We know that if we don't keep the focus on that, if we don't keep prevention programming around that, then down the line we are going to see outbreaks in HIV, we're going to see bigger outbreaks in Hep-C, so we have to be vigilant,” said Fraser.

For now, there are only five needle exchange programs in Ohio, based in Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Toledo, and Portsmouth.