What Caused an HIV Outbreak in Rural Indiana?

By Kim Smiley

A public health emergency has been declared after 79 cases of HIV were confirmed in rural Indiana, the worst outbreak of HIV the state has ever seen.  Individuals potentially at risk have been encouraged to get tested and the number of cases is expected to rise as more cases are identified. The epidemic has been tied to intravenous drug use, although other risky behaviors may also have spread the disease.

In order to effectively fight this HIV epidemic and hopefully reduce the risk of outbreaks in the future, the factors that have led to these HIV cases needs to be understood. This region has been struggling with the use of Opana, a powerful opioid painkiller, for years.  Opana is commonly injected and health officials believe that the use of dirty needles has been the primary driver of HIV infections although unprotected sex was also a potential pathway for infection for some.  Needle exchange programs are illegal in Indiana and access to clean needles is limited so needles are being shared.  In an environment where needle sharing is common, it takes only one individual infected with HIV to rapidly spread the virus to many other drug users.

HIV is also more likely to be spread if infected individuals are unaware that they are infected and are not being treated.   Identifying an individual who has contracted HIV as early as possible and providing treatment helps prevent the disease from spreading because an HIV-positive person who receives sustained treatment is drastically less infectious, even if they continue to engage in high risk behaviors. Access to healthcare and HIV testing is limited in this region where many residents are uninsured and may lack transportation. Heroin use has long been tied to HIV, but users of Opana (a licensed pharmaceutical) may not have been fully aware of the potential risk from sharing needles.

Now that the HIV epidemic has been identified, healthcare officials are working to reduce the risk of more infections by providing testing and treatment.  One physician is even driving door to door, offering free HIV testing and trying to educate residents on drug addiction and HIV treatment.  Austin, Indiana has established its first ever HIV clinic to provide testing, counseling and treatment.  Targeted resources to help educate residents on drug use and to assist addicts seeking to get clean are also being provided.  The governor of Indiana has approved a short term needle exchange program.  Indiana has also created a public awareness campaign to help inform people about the risks of intravenous drug use.  Drug addiction is a notoriously difficult problem to battle, but the additional resources should help reduce the rate of future HIV cases.

To view a high level Cause Map, a visual root cause analysis, of this issue, click on “Download PDF” above.