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Austin Indiana: Worst HIV Outbreak In Decades, Drug Use To Blame

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In the spring of 2015, Austin Indiana made the news because it was facing one of the worst HIV outbreaks in decades, spurred by an uptick in intravenous drug use. This spring, NPR’s Kelly McEvers visited one home at the epicenter of the crisis.

A look inside Austin, Indiana

Austin, Indiana is a small town of about 5,000 people. In April of last year, some 140 people there had been diagnosed with HIV. That estimate is up to nearly 200 now. Drug use and needle sharing were to blame. Specifically, a powerful painkiller called Opana seemed to be a recurring theme in many of the cases.

The health crisis became so prolific that the state’s conservative governor, Mike Pence, approved a needle exchange program, despite publicly opposing the idea. “This is a public health emergency and I’m listening to my health department, I’m listening to the Centers for Disease Control,” said Pence last March.

One year later

As the story unfolded of the HIV-stricken town, news outlets descended upon the small city in Indiana. A man named Kevin Polly was the only resident of Austin willing to go on record about his drug use and HIV status.

“I’d like to say that I’m going to quit, but I’d probably be lying to you,” said Polly to a CBS reporter, who revealed in the segment that Mr. Polly had been diagnosed with HIV seven weeks prior. When asked if he knew sharing needles was dangerous, Polly acknowledged he did, but said that his drive to use the drug and not feel the effects of withdrawal was stronger. “I think we all knew that, but it was in the back of our minds…The number one priority was to get feeling better.”

This March, as part of the new podcast series Embedded, NPR’s Kelly McEvers visited Austin. The premise of Embedded “takes a story from the news and goes deep.” So this past spring, Kelly McEvers and her team traveled to Indiana to try to find Kevin Polly. When they arrived at his home, they learned from his father Clyde that Kevin was in a rehab facility. But Opana, the drug at the root of the HIV crisis, was still very present.

A familiar refrain

Inside Mr. Polly’s home, some of Kevin’s friends were still there. Most of them were addicted to Opana. McEvers spoke to a few of them on the record, and they echoed stories of how they became hooked on the drug; it’s a refrain we hear all too often.

One man, who went only by his first name, Jeff, explained that he was an Iraq war vet. Injured in a Humvee accident, Jeff was prescribed Percocet, and then later Opana. And before long, he was addicted.

A woman living in Mr. Polly’s home, who went by the name Joy, shared a similar story. She was a nurse who had back surgery. After she recovered, she returned to work. One day while running to help a patient, she reinjured herself. She was prescribed painkillers and she too became addicted.

McEvers also meets a couple, Devon and Samantha. When they first meet Devon, Samantha is in jail for a prostitution charge. Devon is staying in the same home with the others, injecting Opana, but hoping to get clean once Samantha gets out of jail. The couple has three kids together, but the kids were taken away from them and put into foster care. Samantha eventually does get out of jail. But they don’t get clean together. They instead hole away in the back bedroom of Mr. Polly’s home, out of sight, presumably using Opana. In a conversation a little later in the podcast, they reveal to McEvers that they both have HIV.

A poignant closing

To close out the piece, McEvers reflects on her time in Austin, realizing the gravity of addiction and its wake of devastation.

“The thing is, Jeff and Joy and Devon and Samantha’s brain chemistry has been changed by their addiction. Researchers say they are different people because they’ve used this drug,” says McEvers. “Expecting Devon and Samantha to just quit on their own isn’t fair. That’s what I was doing when I was reporting this story. And now I realize: It’s how a lot of people think about addicts. ‘Just quit. Fix yourself.’ But for people in Austin, Indiana, people in those bedrooms with the shades closed, people who think they’re dead anyway… It’s a lot more complicated than that.”

You’re not dead anyway

Kelly McEvers dug deep into the ugliest parts of addiction. She saw firsthand how it can ravage a person’s body, mind and soul. And she learned that getting sober isn’t a matter of willpower. If you’re addicted to drugs or alcohol, you need help to get clean and the team of specialists at The Watershed can give you the care you need. Call us any time. Our hotline is open 24/7: 1-800-861-1768.

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