Welcome to Modernity, Austin, IN.

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How long have we been battling HIV/AIDs? Since the mid-1980s or so, we’ve actually had a name for the disease that still goes without a cure. Many places in the world have been fighting not only the direct effects of the disease, but the indirect effects as well for decades. In places like Africa, misinformation about HIV/AIDs has even led to folklore such as the belief that sex with a virgin would cure or somehow prevent the disease, leading to the rape of many innocent young people. While the United States has not experienced this effect, we have our own brand of bad information.

Recently, the tiny town of Austin, Indiana made national news because of an HIV outbreak. The outbreak, according to officials, is largely caused by IV drug use of the prescription pain killer Opana, and of course, heroin and methamphetamine. While one might wonder how what should be a quiet, tiny town becomes the hotbed of drug addiction, and makes National news as the “epicenter” of an HIV outbreak, it really isn’t that much of a shock to those of us who are native to this area. This little town has been a center of drugs and violence for decades.

With little industry, few resources, and no growth in sight, the town has basically been a dead zone for years. Austin has always been a place plagued with trouble. It’s just now that stronger, more lethal drugs have become prevalent and people are overdosing and becoming ill, heads are turning in that direction. That’s not a shocking trend. Overlooking areas such as Austin is not unique—many small towns never make the radar until something shocking happens. What is troubling is the horrible misinformation about both the cause and the solution to the problem.

Watching my local news reports on the goings on in Austin, one story sticks out in my mind. A woman stood on her porch describing how she and her children had borne witness to drug deals and prostitution on her street. She spoke of caring a gun, now, to protect her home and children. While this probably isn’t a crazy idea, it is a bit misguided to think that she could combat this problem with a firearm. Could she protect her home from intruders? Sure. Protect her children from strangers? Sure. Stop drug deals and prostitution? Probably not—maybe…maybe she could get lucky and stop what is going on directly in front of her home, but there is no way that gun ownership will lessen drug addiction and the prostitution that often accompanies it. What really troubles me, though, is during the conversation about people who have contracted HIV, gun ownership rears its head as part of the solution. I mean, the woman never said she’d kill or harm HIV patients, but the news report seemed ill timed when the focus is on stopping the spread of HIV/AIDs and not on stopping crime.

Other misguided conversations on social media called those who had contracted the disease “disgusting” and “scary,” making it seem as if one could catch the virus from a neighbor’s sneeze. It actually took the CDC to clear up some antiquated ideas about the spread of HIV/AIDs. Hearing what people still thought might happen reminded me of 1986-1987 when I first learned about the disease. We were frightened then because we didn’t understand how this all worked. We asked questions like “can we get it from sharing a glass of water?” I really thought, though, that the uncertainty and incorrect assumptions we all made nearly 30 years ago were long gone. Granted, we haven’t been fighting this monster on the scale they have in larger municipalities, but we have had residents with HIV/AIDs for years. Why did we all of a sudden think sharing a neighborhood was akin to sharing a needle?

I do understand that addicts dropping needles all over the place is a danger, as is the danger for medical professionals, but rather than talking about taking up arms to protect oneself, why aren’t we having involved conversations about clean needle exchanges and free condoms? Those subjects are nearly taboo in an area where fundamentalist conservatives have a stronghold.

The CDC did make its way into Austin when the number of those testing positive for HIV hit double digits. By the time it had hit triple digits, a temporary clean needle exchange had been established, as well as free testing. The keyword is “temporary”. For only 30 days, addicts can come in free of fear of incarceration to exchange their needles for clean ones, thereby helping to halt the spread of the disease. What happens after 30 days, though? Where do these people turn?

Surely, we understand that very few, if any, of these people will be drug free and clean in 30 days. Since the needle exchange is working—people are absolutely coming in for clean needles just as they do in larger cities with the exchanges—why aren’t we going to continue? Drug addiction isn’t going away. Guns won’t scare it away. Sorry. That demon is not afraid of death. This idea that giving away clean needles and condoms somehow “supports,” “condones,” or even “encourages” drug use and promiscuity is absurd.

I’ve read the remarks of people who have said we need to show people this behavior is not to be “admired”. The idea that people become drug users/addicts because they think its “admirable” is asinine. Truthfully, it’s the socioeconomic climate the residents of Austin must fight that breeds addiction, and prostitution just follows along as a cottage industry built by their broken lives. I would never assume any of these people wanted to be an addict when they grew up. To believe that is to totally misunderstand addiction. Addiction is something people turn to when there’s nowhere else to turn. It covers their pain. It’s the self-medication that is both the cure and the disease. Loose morals and lack of religion didn’t create this situation. Hopelessness, helplessness, and a feeling of living in an inescapable hell built what we’re dealing with for most. For some, this is a multigenerational problem that both parents and grandparents couldn’t escape. But no one cared 40 years ago, 30 years ago, or even 5 years ago. The violence and drug and sex trade are nothing new to Austin, Indiana. HIV is—or at least people knowing they have HIV is.

Putting a gun in someone’s hands will not kill this problem. Killing the bad information, killing the idea that if we close our eyes it will all go away, and killing the conservative stance that clean needle exchanges and free condoms somehow hurt society will fix this problem. Maybe it won’t stop people from using drugs or working in the sex trade to earn a few dollars, but it might very well stop the rampant spread of HIV. Locals who are too invested in personal religious tropes to invest in the public heath might want to rethink their primary investments before they end up bankrupt.

No. HIV is nothing new. Austin, Indiana, unfortunately, is just a small town that was hurled into modernity to meet up with what the rest of the world has known for decades: You cannot stop addiction, but you can prevent HIV!

(Image source: http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/apr/01/indiana-hiv-outbreak-health-workers-funding)

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