Prescription Opioid Diversion and Its Role in HCV Transmission

HEAL Blog is the recipient of the ADAP Advocacy Association’s 2015-2016 ADAP Social Media Campaign of the Year Award
By: Marcus J. Hopkins, Blogger

In last week’s post, we discussed efforts to force pharmaceutical companies to report payments made to nonprofit organizations and patient advocacy groups in an effort to track which groups are funded primarily (or wholly) by pharmaceutical companies to promote their own business interests. Essentially, by funding certain organizations (such as Pain Advocacy groups), these companies can wage war against legislative attempts to restrict access to and/or prescribing of their highly addictive products (thus losing them money). This week, we’re going to take a look at the diversion of prescription opioid drugs, and how this can lead to both an increase in the likelihood of opioid addiction, and how it contributes to an increase in disease transmission via Injection Drug Use (IDU).

Each day, more than 1,000 people are treated in emergency departments for not using prescription opioids as directed

Photo Source: CDC

When I moved back to Kingsport, Tennessee as an adult in my late-20s, I began to notice a pattern: my co-workers and high school friends would tell me about their exploits with illicitly obtained “pills” – mostly OxyContin, as this was the late-00s. While working in a casual dining restaurant, I frequently heard about and witnessed efforts by my co-workers to obtain these drugs from other restaurant employees. Money would change hands, furtive glances were made around the restaurant to ensure no one was watching, and a few pills would be received, either loose or in a plastic bag. This activity was, of course, both illegal and against company policy, but it’s just SO easy to do, and I never reported the activity.

These drugs were often obtained by the seller either through a legitimate prescription for their own pain, or through getting them off of a third party. This type of drug dealing is called “diversion” – when legitimately prescribed opioid drugs are used outside of their prescribed purpose. It’s also the way that most prescription opioid addicts begin their path to addiction.

In 2015, HEAL Blog talked about the havoc prescription opioids wreaked upon my state (Hopkins, 2015). Teenagers would gain access to their parents’, grandparents’, or friends’ legitimately prescribed opioid drugs and use them recreationally. Unbeknownst to them, Purdue Pharma failed to mention that they knew their product was highly addictive, and before long, entire towns were in the throes of addiction. Fast forward to the ‘10s, and many of those prescription opioid addicts have moved away from the now-difficult-to-obtain prescription drugs to the much easier and cheaper to obtain heroin. Unfortunately for them, a good percentage of those heroin batches contain Fentanyl or Carfentanil – highly potent synthetic opioids that often lead to overdoses.

At the end of 2014, Scott County, Indiana, saw an huge spike in new HIV infections, caught because healthcare workers noticed a spike in new Hepatitis C infections. These new infections were driven almost entirely by IDU of Opana – a highly addictive prescription opioid that was removed from the market in 2017 (Kean, 2017). By the end of 2016, the county had 216 new HIV infections in the span of just two years, and of those, 95% were co-infected with HCV (May, 2016). So severe was the problem that Indiana and several surrounding states took the unprecedented approach of legalizing Syringe Services Programs – a move that was nigh unthinkable, since the early days of its proposal in the 1980s.

Here, in West Virginia, the rate of new HCV infections more than doubled from 2015 to 2016, from 3.4 to 7.2 (per 100,000), 68% of which were likely the result of IDU (WVDHHR, 2018). Despite this, Danny Jones, the mayor of Charleston, WV – the state capital – is on the warpath against the Kanawha County Harm Reduction Clinic because of an increase in used needles left throughout the city (Jenkins, 2018). Never mind that much of this refuse could be eliminated would the city spring for the Biohazard Disposal Kiosks requested by the health department, who instead had to fund them using funds from Emergency Medical Services programs.

Prescription drug diversion has led to tragic repercussions for many living in Appalachia who are now struggling with both addiction and comorbid infectious diseases. But, this problem doesn’t just exist in rural Appalachia, the Midwest, and New England – these issues are manifesting all around the U.S., and if we don’t take drastic measures to deal with drastic consequences, we’ll find ourselves faced with expensive outcomes.



Disclaimer: HEAL Blogs do not necessarily reflect the views of the Community Access National Network (CANN), but rather they provide a neutral platform whereby the author serves to promote open, honest discussion about Hepatitis-related issues and updates. Please note that the content of some of the HEAL Blogs might be graphic due to the nature of the issues being addressed in it.


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