Federal health officials have issued an alert to state and municipal health departments telling them to ensure they are identifying and tracking cases of HIV and hepatitis C. The alert was prompted by the ongoing HIV outbreak in southern Indiana and by a 150% increase in cases of acute hepatitis C seen between 2010 and 2013.
Rising rates of hepatitis C infections are a sign that intravenous drug users are sharing needles, which puts them at great risk for becoming infected with HIV. Increases in the number of cases of hepatitis C can be an indicator of a potential HIV outbreak.
"The situation in Indiana should serve as a warning that we cannot let down our guard against these deadly infections," said Dr. Jonathan Mermin, director of the National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention, a part of the CDC.
The CDC alert advises health departments to examine data on new diagnoses of HIV and hepatitis C and also review deaths due to drug overdoses, drug arrests, and admissions to drug treatment centers. These last three categories could help identify groups that are at risk for having been infected with HIV or hepatitis C.
Indiana health officials say that the number of confirmed cases of HIV in Scott County is now 136, with another 6 preliminary positive cases. This number is unprecedented for that area. Scott County had only three new HIV cases between 2009 and 2013. The entire state of Indiana usually sees only 500 new cases of HIV annually. Most of the people infected in the county say they were using intravenous drugs, usually the prescription painkiller Opana.
The Midwest and other areas of the country are experiencing large increases in the number of people addicted to opiates and similar drugs, many of whom inject the drugs intravenously. Indiana bans needle exchanges, where addicts can obtain clean needles to prevent the spread of infection, but has lifted the ban temporarily in Scott County.