HIV plagues a southern Indiana county, but high school students in Austin, Ind., are stepping in to do something about it. Students put together a special edition school newspaper to bring awareness to the problem and are forming groups to assist with education and prevention.
Holli Reynolds, 18, a student at Austin High School, is one of those students moving to help the community. She wrote several stories about the disease and how it is affecting Austin for the school newspaper and organized a group, which currently consists of 15 members, called “Stand Up.” Stand Up’s primary mission is to educate younger students about HIV, drug use, and how the two are connected.
Reynolds said her stories, including one that focused on the addiction of a local prostitute, were meant to be eye opening. She said her goal is to unite the community to address the drug problem existing in Austin’s northern neighborhoods. Reynolds also said she believes that other young people would pay more attention to reports from other students rather than information coming from adults.
Scott County, where Austin is located, has seen an HIV epidemic since February. Officials are now stating there are 130 confirmed cases, with at least 24 of those being confirmed over the past week. State health officials said the normal number of HIV cases reported in Scott County is five, annually. Health officials said the recent rise in cases is likely because more people are being tested for HIV. County and state officials established education programs to encourage testing and more people are coming in, according to local health reports. Even so, officials are expecting HIV numbers to rise higher, amounting to a greater plague on the southern Indiana county.
The root cause of the epidemic is needle use, specifically addicts using the painkiller Opana. Scott County is the only area seeing the HIV epidemic, but the dramatic rise of cases has prompted state officials to address it. Indiana has a state law prohibiting needle exchange programs, but Gov. Mike Pence suspended the law by declaring a public health emergency in March and issued an executive order allowing for needle exchange programs to be implemented in Scott County for 30 days.
The needle exchange program began on April 4, and has distributed more than 5,300 needles to 86 people. The governor is considering extending the program past April 25, when it is set to end, and will base that decision on health officials’ information about effectiveness of the program.
Austin’s leaders, including Austin High School Principal Sherman Smith, said he is bothered that the national attention of the county’s plight does not adequately portray the community. He said the epidemic is centered in Austin’s north end and is not representative of other parts of the city or county. Smith said he typically never sees drug use or other similar problems among his students.
AHS teacher, Euleda Turner, who is also the faculty advisor to the school newspaper The Eagle, said she is proud the students have moved forward with ways to address the issue. She said student writers and editors put together the special issue out of love for the community rather than to get a grade. With the students’ efforts, and other actions taken by state officials and local residents, the youth spearheading new initiatives hope the HIV plaguing the southern Indiana county can be stopped before numbers rise even higher.
By Melody Dareing
Photo by NIAID – Flickr License