Federal experts target Indiana HIV outbreak

Published 12:10 pm Wednesday, March 25, 2015

AUSTIN, Ind. — Boarded up windows, discarded syringes and signs advertising free HIV testing are suddenly defining this southern Indiana hotbed of drug abuse and dirty needle diseases.

“We should have had a handle on a lot of this stuff for a long time,” said Jim Kallemback, president of the Austin City Council. “We’ve let this community run wild.”

So wild, health officials say, that 72 HIV cases have been confirmed in the rural region in the past four months. And, they suspect, there’s another 50 or so unreported cases.

HIV is the virus that causes AIDS, the infectious disease that triggered an epidemic scare in the 1980s and 1990s. The virus is spread mainly by sexual transmission and contaminated drug needles.

A team of doctors and an epidemiologist from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta arrived in Austin Tuesday, interviewing doctors and HIV patients and analyzing data to determine the specific strain of the virus and how to prevent its spread.

“We have a kind of recipe for disaster,” said Dr. William Cooke, who operates a family medicine clinic in Austin. “All the bad ingredients – unemployment, high drop outs, high teen pregnancy, high drug abuse.”

Indiana’s Health Department said the HIV outbreak here mostly involves intravenous drug users sharing needles to inject liquefied opiods and heroin. It said unsafe sex is also a contributing factor.

Austin is the epicenter of the crisis. Located 35 miles north of Louisville, Kentucky, the impoverished city is gripped with several residents who have tested positive for HIV and others who refuse to find out if they are infected.

Amy Reel, a spokeswoman for the state health department, said the CDC medical team is reviewing prevention and HIV treatment programs to ensure they are adequate.

Signs posted throughout the community by the Scott County Health Department urge people who have engaged in high risk behaviors to get tested. The posters advertise confidential, free HIV tests Mondays and Thursdays between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. at the health office in nearby Scottsburg.

“Results in 30 minutes,” promises the placard.

Despite the unusual HIV outbreak, Austin will get its first public testing facility next week when Dr. Janet Arno, an infectious disease specialist at Indiana University, opens a clinic in town.

State Rep. Terry Goodin of Austin is urging the state Legislature to enact an emergency bill to allow drug addicts to exchange used needles for clean ones even though many in conservative Indiana see such a measure as encouraging illegal drug use.

“What I’m going to support is what the professionals say is going to work,” said Goodin.

Debbie and Jerry Ousley, founders of Oasis of Hope Missions for Austin’s hungry and homeless, agree more government intervention is needed.

They said a high number of prostitutes, most in their early 20s, populate the community, driven by a need for money to feed their drug addiction.

“When we see the girls on the street, getting picked up, it breaks our heart because we know that it is all about drugs,” said Debbie Ousley.

Richard Barrett, who doesn’t live in Scott County but has family there, said Austin’s HIV crisis doesn’t surprise him.

“Back in the day it used to be racism, then it went to drugs, then poverty,” he said. “Now it has been hit with the HIV outbreak. A lot of things go hand in hand, in my opinion.”

City Council President Kallemback said the local police department is partly to blame by not cracking down hard on drug dealers.

“When there’s a drug house on every corner, someone ought to be arrested,” he said. “It is pretty simple. Everybody knows what’s going on.”

Police Chief Donald Spicer admitted Austin is beset by drug dealers. But, he added, “that doesn’t give me the authority to arrest them. I have to be able to prove it. We take an oath to follow the rules.”

Elizabeth Beilman is a reporter for the Jefferson, Ind., News and Tribune. Contact her at Elizabeth.beilman@newsandtribune.com.