By Steve Bittenbender
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (Reuters) - The number of new HIV cases in a rural southern Indiana county that has seen a recent epidemic has fallen dramatically, public health officials said on Wednesday.
Scott County health workers will still need to treat those infected and identify and advise those considered to be at high risk of contracting HIV, the virus that can cause AIDS.
"This is something that is going to require continuing vigilance," Dr. Jerome Adams, the state's health commissioner, said at a news conference.
Indiana officials began noticing a spike in HIV cases in the county late last year and tied it to abuse of intravenous prescription drugs. The number of positive new cases now stands at 170 since December, while the county previously registered no more than five positive cases a year.
The number of new cases has fallen to a range of zero to two a week from a peak of 23 in late April, said Dr. Jennifer Walthall, deputy state health commissioner.
By March, the rapid spread of the virus prompted Indiana Governor Mike Pence, a Republican who opposed needle exchanges, to allow for one in Scott County. Madison County, Indiana, also requested a needle exchange on Wednesday to help battle the spread of Hepatitis C, which is also linked to intravenous drug abuse.
Adams said officials also wanted to identify so-called high-risk negatives – people who do not have the virus but could become infected through their lifestyles or environment.
Health officials are trying to get more patients to receive treatment. Eleven patients have already had the virus suppressed, which Walthall said was remarkable at such an early stage.
Scott County will take over managing the needle exchange and other aspects of the program, but Adams said the state would maintain a presence. “We are not pulling out,” he said.
Officials in Madison County, northeast of Indianapolis, said its needle exchange, if approved, could begin later this summer.
Madison County had 130 new cases of Hepatitis C in 2014, almost twice as many as 2013, said Kellie Kelley, HIV/STD coordinator for the county. This year's numbers are expected to meet or exceed last year's.
An increase in Hepatitis C is often seen as a warning sign for a possible HIV epidemic. State officials noted that 85 percent of Scott County's HIV patients tested positive for hepatitis.
(Reporting by Steve Bittenbender; Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Peter Cooney)