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Indiana is Facing An Outbreak of HIV Linked To Abuse of Opiate Painkiller Opana

The powerful painkiller Opana is to blame for a quickly spreading outbreak of HIV in southeastern Indiana. The news of this spread is causing great concern for health care professionals across the region and country due to the opiate epidemic.

There have been 26 confirmed cases of HIV as of Wednesday by Indiana State health officials and four more preliminary cases since mid-December. Most of the cases have been directly linked to the painkiller Opana which is injected by abusers. Officials have said this is the largest HIV outbreak the state of Indiana has ever experienced in one region.

"Addicts use and misuse needles," said Karyn Hascal, president of The Healing Place in Louisville, which serves Southern Indiana addicts. "When you have injectable drugs like prescription pills and other narcotics being abused as much as they have been, (Hepatitis) C and HIV are soon to follow. ... I knew that HIV and Hep C would come back."

The concern is a national one as well. According to officials at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state injection drug use is a well-known route of transmission for blood-born infections such as HIV.  Injection drug users represent 8 percent of new HIV infections each year and 15 percent of those living with HIV which causes AIDS.

Jerome Adams, Indiana state health commissioner, said he's especially concerned because most of the residents who tested positive for HIV just recently contracted the virus and may spread it to others.

"Because prescription drug abuse is at the heart of this outbreak, we are not only working to identify, contact and test individuals who may have been exposed, but also to connect community members to resources for substance abuse treatment and recovery," Adams said.

Prescription drug abuse has skyrocketed in the past two decades in Indiana, Kentucky and across the nation. Nationally, public health officials claim that someone dies of a prescription drug overdose every 25 minutes. The CDC said drug overdoses were the leading cause of injury death in 2012, causing more deaths among 25-to-64-year-olds than motor vehicle crashes.

Drug overdoses kill about 1,000 people a year in Kentucky and about the same number in Indiana. According to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 5.68% of Hoosiers and 4.48% of Kentuckians used prescription painkillers non-medically in 2010-11, the latest year for which statistics are available.

Brandon Holman of Louisville, a recovering Opana and heroin addict who has been at the Healing Place for three months, said he sometimes used to worry about contracting HIV, "but at the time I was just maintaining a drug habit," and spent most of his energy on getting the drugs he craved. Holman, 24, said he never contracted a blood-borne disease, and "I consider myself real blessed."

FDA officials argue that the generic product is a useful therapy for pain if used correctly, and that abuse-deterrent properties don't make an opioid impossible to abuse. What we can all agree on is that something needs to be done quickly to help curb the opiate addiction along with the spread of blood-born diseases.

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