A recent outbreak of HIV infection in rural Indiana has Kentucky officials on alert for new HIV infection cases from sharing needles while injecting heroin and other opioid drugs. In May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported an HIV outbreak centered in a small rural community in Indiana, in which most individuals who were infected had been engaged in shared drug use activity, most commonly injecting an opioid painkiller with shared syringes. They found that 135 people in a community of 4,200 were infected with the virus.
Kentucky health officials are concerned the state could be at risk for a similar outbreak. Kentucky has already seen spikes in cases of hepatitis C as a result of the state’s ongoing drug addiction epidemic (and has the highest rate of hepatitis C infection in the nation.) The same kind of drug activities that have pushed hepatitis cases up in the state could also trigger an HIV outbreak if the virus gains a foothold.
Lack of funding could harm prevention efforts directed at possible HIV outbreak in KY
So far, there hasn’t been a significant spike in HIV infection in KY, according to The Courier-Journal. That virus has not typically been a problem for the state, where there are fewer than half of the national average number of HIV cases in U.S. states. However, the low occurrence of the disease in the state could present an obstacle to preventing an outbreak similar to that in Indiana. Why? Because there isn’t much federal funding going toward HIV prevention, education, and testing in Kentucky. The Journal story reports that the Kaiser Foundation lists KY as receiving the least amount of federal HIV prevention funding in the country. That figure dropped to $1.4 million in 2014.
Syringe exchange programs could be a valuable tool in averting an HIV outbreak
Because prevention and testing are so crucial to heading off an outbreak of the virus, the emergence of needle exchange programs in the state could help prevent HIV from posing a widespread threat. In addition to getting dirty, potentially infected needles out of public circulation, they can help to educate individuals about how to prevent infection recommend testing for high-risk users. Another problem, however, is that the needle exchanges, and most federal prevention funding, are concentrated in urban rather than rural areas. Health officials in the state are tasked with figuring out how to evenly spread the state’s resources and closely monitor new cases of HIV and hepatitis C.