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Indiana county ends needle exchange program credited with containing an HIV outbreak

An Indiana county on Wednesday voted to end a needle exchange program that health officials say has been responsible for significantly reducing the spread of HIV in the area. 

The Scott County commissioners decided in a 2-1 vote that the district should phase out the program that provides access to and disposal of sterile needles and naloxone, as well as other emergency recovery and medical services. 

Commissioners Mike Jones and Randy Julian defended their votes striking down the program Wednesday by arguing that access to needles has caused more drug overdoses in the county. 

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"I know people that are alcoholics, and I don't buy him a bottle of whiskey, and ... I have a hard time handing a needle to somebody that I know they're going to hurt theirself with," Jones said, according to NPR

Meanwhile, Julian said that while he is “very worried” about “HIV and hepatitis,” what he was “more concerned about is the people we cannot bring back to life,” according to local ABC affiliate WHAS.

However, others have defended the program, including former U.S. Surgeon General Jerome AdamsJerome AdamsIndiana county ends needle exchange program credited with containing an HIV outbreak Fauci: Americans 'misinterpreting' mask rules Former surgeon general: CDC 'fumbled the ball at the one-yard line' with new mask guidance messaging MORE, who said while attending a Scott County commissioners’ meeting in May, "I've seen syringe service programs all over the nation; I've been to Canada and seen how they do it over there ... and the way you're doing it here is the way it's supposed to be done."

In 2015, then-Indiana Gov. Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceHow to investigate Jan. 6 (and other politicized issues) without a commission On The Money: Democrats wary of emerging bipartisan infrastructure deal, warn of time crunch Pence buys .9M home in Indiana MORE (R) approved the first syringe exchange program in the county, located about 30 minutes north of Louisville, Ky. 

The program came as the rural Indiana county was experiencing a rapid outbreak of HIV due to needle sharing among drug users, with an estimated 235 people infected with HIV at the time, according to NPR. 

The county’s rates of HIV have significantly dropped since the needle sharing program was implemented, with just one HIV case reported in all of 2020. 

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Michelle Matern, Scott County's health administrator, told NPR that it would be a mistake to end the syringe program.  

"I think a lot of people forgot kind of what 2015 was like, and what we went through as a community," she added. 

While the vote Wednesday set a Jan. 1, 2022, end date for the program, the commissioners said they would be open to moving back this deadline if they are not able to put a replacement program in place for community members to have access to addiction and mental health resources.