With all of the hoopla over Indiana’s recent enactment of its Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a poorly-written law that gives businesses and individuals broad license to discriminate against members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, another travesty unfolding in that state has gone overlooked. Specifically, Indiana is experiencing the largest outbreak of HIV in the Hoosier State’s history, an epidemic sparked in part by partisan politics.
Just last week, Indiana Governor Mike Pence declared a public health emergency in Scott County after 79 people tested positive for the virus that causes AIDS, an outbreak fueled by rampant injection drug use. In past years, that rural county saw an average of only 5 new cases of HIV infection annually.
So what does partisan politics have to do with this public health emergency? Plenty. Consider, for example, Indiana’s ban on needle exchange programs.
HIV, hepatitis C (HCV), and other blood borne diseases are readily spread between drug users who share contaminated injection equipment. One of the easiest ways to prevent the spread of HIV among injection drug users (IDUs) is a needle exchange program, which allows drug users to obtain sterile syringes, hypodermic needles, and other paraphernalia without a prescription and at little to no cost.
Dozens of studies conducted in the United States and overseas have shown that needle exchange programs work extremely well. Among IDUs in New York City, for example, rates of HIV dropped four-fold when needle exchange programs were first introduced. In fact, the effectiveness of these programs in reducing rates of HIV infection among injection drug users is so great that US Office of National Drug Control Policy, the US National Institutes of Health, the US Surgeon General, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime all encourage their use.
Despite this, needle exchange programs are still banned in 24 states, including Indiana. What is the argument that predominantly conservative politicians use to oppose these programs? That they encourage illicit drug use. But even this claim lacks credence. One study conducted in San Francisco found that drug use dropped three-fold among IDUs who used that city’s needle exchange program. Most of these programs also provide peer education and referrals to treatment clinics, helping participants break free of their drug addiction.
Thankfully, Governor Pence finally (sort of) gets it. He recently announced a 30-day moratorium on enforcing Indiana’s ban, stating that “I do not support needle exchanges as anti-drug policy, but this is a public health emergency. I’m going to make a decision on the best science and the best way to stop this virus and this outbreak in its tracks.” Public health officials in Indiana can now implement a needle exchange program should they want to. While it is too late for the 79 newly infected residents of Scott County, such a program may slow the spread of HIV to other Hoosiers.
Indiana’s now-suspended ban on needle exchange programs aside, politically motivated spending cuts are also to blame for the outbreak in Scott County. That county has been without a HIV testing clinic for nearly two years, the direct result of partisan wrangling about abortion.
Until 2013, the Scott County Planned Parenthood clinic was the sole provider of HIV counseling and testing in that rural community. That facility closed after Republican lawmakers cut state funding of Planned Parenthood because of their opposition to abortion. As a result, five clinics run by Planned Parenthood of Indiana & Kentucky were shuttered, including the one in Scott County.
None of those five now-closed clinics provided abortion services. Rather, like most Planned Parenthood clinics nationwide, they mainly provided other desperately needed health care services to poor men and women. Those services included family planning counseling; pregnancy testing and prenatal care; screening for breast, cervical and testicular cancer; testing and treatment for sexually-transmitted diseases; and HIV testing and education. Those services are now largely unavailable to the economically disadvantaged residents of Scott County.
In their zeal to demonize and defund Planned Parenthood over abortion, a still legal medical procedure that accounts for less than 3% of the total services that organization provides, Indiana lawmakers thus created the very conditions needed for an outbreak of HIV to occur.
Sadly, those conditions are being replicated elsewhere. Just last week, for example, Texas lawmakers announced a plan to cut $3 million from state-run HIV prevention programs and redirect the funds to faith-based abstinence-only education projects. That state currently ranks third nationwide in new HIV diagnoses. It is now likely to claim the top spot, a rather dubious honor.
So long as conservative politicians continue their efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, continue their ideological opposition to needle exchange programs, and continue to prioritize the needs and goals of their corporate donors over the health and welfare of their own citizens, outbreaks like the one in Scott County will continue to occur. I only hope that voters finally sit up and take notice of the very real public health threat that these policies present.
[This blog entry was originally presented as an oral commentary on Northeast Public Radio on April 9, 2015, and is available on the WAMC website.]