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(INDIANAPOLIS) – Indy is expanding efforts to stop the spread of HIV, with a mobile unit to reach drug users in their neighborhoods.

Marion County is one of eight counties with syringe exchange programs to prevent intravenous drug users from spreading HIV or hepatitis through dirty needles. The health department is partnering with the HIV patient service organization Damien Center on a new mobile unit to reach drug users in their neighborhoods, instead of making them seek out either the health department or the Damien Center’s eastside office.

Along with clean needles, the unit will offer vaccinations, screenings for hepatitis and sexually transmitted diseases, and referrals to substance abuse treatment programs.

Damien Center president Alan Witchey says the mobile unit’s staff will be trained in grassroots outreach, and will work with the community to put the unmarked van in neighborhoods where it can have the most impact. He says the partnership plans to add 40 hours a week of availability for the program, either at the Damien Center headquarters or through the mobile unit.

Marion County health director Virginia Caine says the county had 218 new HIV cases in 2019, the most recent year for which data are available. That’s double the national per-capita average. The department has set a goal to bring that number below 60 in three years, and below 30 in eight years.