Austin, Indiana, Ravaged By HIV Epidemic — What Caused The Outbreak?

Austin, Indiana, is typical small-town America; so much so, that on first look one would never guess that it’s been hit with an HIV epidemic so sinister that nearly five percent of its 4,300 inhabitants are infected, reported USA Today.

Close to 200 cases of HIV have been reported in the small town of Austin, Indiana — just a few dozen miles to the north of Louisville, Kentucky. That number first began to cause alarm in February 2015 when a shocking 30 cases were found. A month later, nearly 60 cases were on record. Now, a year later, the number of infections has increased three-fold.

Conditions in Austin, Indiana, created a perfect environment for HIV to spread, say experts who have worked to get the epidemic under control. The majority of the town lives in difficult economic conditions — few businesses thrive, only one in 10 Austinites has a college degree, and 20 percent live in poverty.

Those factors helped push many locals toward a dangerous addiction to intravenous drug use. Even young people living in Austin, Indiana, found themselves with little hope for the future — asking doctors for disability forms so that they could make some form of income in the town with few jobs. Scott County, where the town is located, was the state’s biggest consumer of Oxycontin. Even more chilling, that was double the rate of the next county down.

International media also started to take notice. Reuters used Austin, Indiana, as its example in an article about Opana — a new drug addicts were scrambling for after Oxycontin became more difficult to inject. At the same time, the local medical community began to see the marks of addiction all over patients who came in for treatment. Dr. William Cooke says that all of them knew an HIV outbreak was on the horizon.

“We would scratch our heads as a medical community once in a while and say, ‘Why don’t we see more HIV than we do?’ It’s a matter of time. It was something we just kind of knew.”

Those HIV cases seemed to first gain traction sometime in 2014. By December of that year, local authorities felt the need to notify the Indiana State Health Board about the possibility of an epidemic in Austin. For another year and a half, those cases continued to increase.

A hard-won needle exchange program and a community effort to provide options for treatment eventually put Austin, Indiana, back on track. Although many still suffer from addiction, the majority of people living with HIV are no longer infectious due to proper medical care. Furthermore, the town is attacking the root of the problem: poverty, says Dr. Jerome Adams, the state health commissioner.

“We’re shifting from episodic-based care to population-based care. When we deal with an outbreak of mumps, let’s vaccinate everyone. Let’s put the fire out and move on. In Scott County, it’s about looking at those indicators that put them at risk for this HIV outbreak. The HIV outbreak is really just a beacon that shined a light on the underlying health factors.”

Austin, Indiana, is far from alone when it comes to suffering from HIV and intravenous drug addiction. Recreational use of painkillers has soared in recent years among teenagers. These narcotics serve as a sometimes easier-to-access initiation to the world of opiates, which can lead to some of the most addictive controlled substances — such as heroin. Prescriptions for painkillers like Vicodin and Oxycontin have continued to mount significantly since 1999, as have the number of narcotics-related deaths, reported the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC).

[Image via Paula Bronstein/Getty Images]