By John Dodge

By John Dodge

CHICAGO (CBS) — An unprecedented outbreak of HIV cases in far south-east Indiana has been traced largely to addicts using a powerful painkiller.

Since mid-December, state health officials have confirmed 26 cases of patients who have tested positive for HIV, the virus that caused AIDS. Four other cases are suspected, but not confirmed.

“We regularly investigate cases of HIV/AIDS, but this is the largest outbreak we have experienced,” said Amy Reel, of the state’s department of health. It’s also unique in that it’s primarily being transmitted through injection drug use.”

The outbreak is currently centered in five counties near the border with Kentucky: Scott, Washington, Clark, Jackson and Perry.

The large majority of cases are linked through addicts using tainted needles to inject the prescription drug, opana. A small number of cases linked through sexual transmission.

Opana is a powerful opioid painkiller containing oxymorphone. It is more potent, per milligram, than Oxycontin.

“It’s very concerning to me that most of the individuals who have tested HIV positive have only recently contracted the virus,” said State Health Commissioner Jerome Adams, M.D., M.P.H. “Because prescription drug abuse is at the heart of this outbreak, we are not only working to identify, contact and test individuals who may have been exposed, but also to connect community members to resources for substance abuse treatment and recovery.”

Health officials are interviewing each newly identified HIV positive individual to obtain information about needle sharing and sex partners, as well as recommending care coordination services, medical care and HIV prevention information.

Hoosiers in the southeastern portion of the state, especially individuals who have engaged in high-risk behavior such as needle sharing and unprotected sex, are advised to get tested and then re-tested after about two to three months because HIV can take up to three months to appear in a person’s system.