Scott County: A Failure Of Public Health Education

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ijection-913793-mFor all those in science, educating people is a major part of the job. Whether it's a professor teaching students in a classroom, a physician teaching a patient about a procedure, or a non-profit, like ACSH teaching consumers the difference between good and junk science, the work of those in the sciences will always be characterized by teaching in some form. When this system breaks down and good science doesn t get to the people, the situation can become dire. Unfortunately we are constantly seeing examples of this happening in society. Yesterday we talked about the situation in Texas where a lack of sex ed. has fueled an outbreak of chlamydia at a local high school; today we bring you the news that in rural Indiana it s still 1985 for HIV/Aids knowledge.

Just a couple of months ago, Scott County, with a population of just 24,000, was unknown to the average American. Now it will forever be associated with the worst outbreak of HIV in the state of Indiana's history. The fuel that set this fire was the new prescription opiate, Opana, which when crushed, dissolved in water and injected is very potent and very addictive. Opana use is rampant in Scott County, and according to a New York Times article, it is very easy to get. Clean needles, however, are apparently difficult to get in Scott County. Some addicts said they were using and sharing the same needle up to 300 times, only stopping to find a new one when it broke off during an injection.

Reluctantly, Indiana Governor Mike Pence listened to the science and allowed a temporary needle exchange program in the county, after the epidemic had been ongoing for over a month. Thus far the results are promising. Over 9,000 clean needles have been handed out and over 8,000 have been returned since the program's inception in March, a program the governor has extended to the end of May and will now expand to other counties that can prove they also have a needle-sharing fueled HIV epidemic.

But dirty needles aren t the only reason for the spread of HIV in Scott County: a lack of HIV understanding is contributing as well. The Times piece points out that many in this rural Indiana county still believe that HIV is spread through sharing a drinking glass, by sharing a bathroom or through contact with an infected person s skin. Furthermore, many in Scotts County still think of HIV as a gay disease, and the stigma associated in a socially conservative county has certainly kept people away from going to the clinic to get tested and treated. Compounding this issue is that many there still think HIV is a death sentence and many reportedly don t know the difference between an HIV and an AIDS diagnosis.

However, there is a bright spot in this gloomy tale as stories about some great scientifically literate residents of the county are starting to shine through. The Times describes the efforts of Scott County public health nurse Brittany Combs, who began distributing clean needles directly to known addicts well before the Governor got around to approving the needle exchange program. There is also the story of 18 year old Holli Reynolds, who along with being captain of the basketball team and the homecoming queen, found time to start major HIV awareness campaigns for Scott County youths. Reynolds led a group of students who founded a new group which created and distributed publications and led discussions for students, as young as second grade, on the facts about HIV. She said of her efforts: I was like, Well, we re going to have to do something about it so everyone s aware of what s going on around them. Because we re living in it.