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Indiana's HIV epidemic convinced its Republican governor to give needle exchanges a try

Gov. Mike Pence (R) speaks at an NRA forum.
Gov. Mike Pence (R) speaks at an NRA forum.
John Gress/Getty Images
  1. Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) declared a public health emergency and approved a 30-day needle exchange program to combat a growing HIV epidemic in part of the state.
  2. State health officials recorded 79 news HIV cases linked to IV drug use in Scott County, up from less than five in a typical year.
  3. Pence, who generally opposes needle exchange programs, doesn't want his order to become permanent, and would veto a bill that establishes a broader program across the state, the Indianapolis Star reported.
  4. "I do not enter into this lightly," Pence said, according to the Star. "In response to a public health emergency, I'm prepared to make an exception to my long-standing opposition to needle exchange programs."

Clean needle exchanges are a proven way to fight the spread of HIV

heroin vermont

Lots of needles. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images News)

Syringe exchanges allow people to obtain clean needles for little to no cost. The idea is to get dirty needles off the streets while supplying drug users with needles that won't carry the risk of an HIV or hepatitis infection.

These programs are proven to substantially reduce, although not eliminate, the rate of HIV infections from needles. A 1998 study from researchers at Johns Hopkins University found clean needle exchanges reduced the spread of HIV without increasing drug use. A 2004 study from the World Health Organization, which analyzed two decades of evidence, produced similar results.

When Washington, DC, adopted a needle exchange program to combat its HIV epidemic, needle-caused HIV cases dropped by 80 percent, from 149 in 2007 to 30 in 2011, according a report from the DC Department of Health.

Critics of needle exchanges believe the programs increase illegal drug use by expanding access to syringes used for drugs. The World Health Organization found no convincing evidence to support that claim.

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