Tag Archives: appalacian

Appalachia’s Opioid Addiction Continues Wreaking Health Havoc

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

The Northern Kentucky Health Department (NKHD) has reported a 48% increase in new HIV infections in the region in 2017, with 37 new cases compared to 25 in 2016. In 18 of those 37 cases (48.6%), Injection Drug Use (IDU) was listed as a primary risk factor, compared to just 5 of the 25 cases in 2016 (20%). Further analysis of these data show that the IDU-related new infections were concentrated in just two of the region’s four counties – Campbell and Kenton (Northern Kentucky Health Department, 2018).

Whenever a jump in new HIV infections occurs in Appalachia, I say to myself, “THIS! THIS will be our teachable moment! THIS will be the one that forces [state] to take action!” And, a lot of the time, I’m partially correct. The most common refrain I hear when asking state and local healthcare officials about potential HIV outbreaks is, “We don’t want this to be another Scott County, Indiana.”

Sihe HIV outbreak in Scott County, IN in 2015 (Hopkins, 2017) that saw the county’s number of new HIV infections jump from 5 per year to 216 in two years, states all across American and even the Federal government began taking actions to prevent a similar outbreak. In 2016, Congress partially lifted the ban on Federal funding for Syringe Services Programs (SSPs) – a move once thought virtually impossible given the political climate (All Things Considered, 2016). The Scott County outbreak served as a cautionary tale in state run by Conservatives – “It’s time to get with the times.”

Two hands, with one hold a needle

Photo Source: TheBody.com

Of the 18 IDU-related HIV infections, 78% were co-infected with Hepatitis C (Monks, 2018). Increases in new cases of Hepatitis C (HCV) are often the “canary in the coal mine) that leads healthcare professionals to begin more rigorous screening for HIV, particularly in areas of the country where the incidences of prescription opioid and/or heroin abuse are particularly rampant. Unlike the heroin epidemic of the 1970s, the new opioid epidemic of the modern millennium is set in rural and suburban areas of the country. Of the 220 counties identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as being vulnerable to HIV or HCV outbreaks, 56% are in Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia – the states that rank in the top four rates of Hepatitis B and HCV infections in the U.S. (Whalen & Campo-Flores, 2018).

Across the Ohio River from the Northern Kentucky Independent District, in Cincinnati, the city saw a 40% increase in new HIV infections over 2016, with a total of 129 new infections, 28 of which (22%) were IDU-related (Whalen & Campo-Flores).

HEAL Blog will continue to monitor the situation in Northern Kentucky. After all, nobody wants to be the next Scott County, Indiana

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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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West Virginia’s Rx Crisis

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

Over the past two years, HEAL Blog has paid much attention to the prescription opioid and heroin epidemic sweeping America’s suburban and rural areas, particularly in the 13-state Appalachian Mountain region. Nowhere is this truer than in those counties and states where coal mining is the predominant industry. Mining coal can be brutal work, and miners have historically led the pack in terms of health issues. From Black Lung Disease to various types of cancer related to the inhalation of coal dust and exposure to chemicals used by the mining industry, it is a long-standing reality that the hard life coal miners face to make a living will likely result in long-term illness, pain, and/or disability.

Compounding the myriad health issues related to mining coal is how physicians, pain advocates, and pharmaceutical companies have capitalized upon these issues in the pursuit profits. In the late 1990s, prescription opioid painkillers that were once reserved for only the sickest, most desperately hurting patients gained acceptance as an acceptable treatment for even the most minor injuries, and Purdue Pharma, maker of OxyContin, one of the most widely abused prescription opioid drugs, was key in ensuring that their products were made available to as many people as possible, despite knowing (and withholding information about) the highly addictive nature of these pills. Purdue even went so far as to provide physicians with tens-of-thousands of coupons offering free 30-day trials of OxyContin to give their patients. And, with its work- and lifestyle-related injuries causing their patients pain, coal mining regions quickly became a pipeline for overprescribed opioid drugs.

Purdue Pharma logo

Photo Source: Purdue Pharma

Recent investigations and lawsuits in West Virginia have revealed astonishing levels of overprescribing, abuse, and overdoses in the state. Drug shipping sales records from drug companies (which those companies fought to keep confidential) indicate that, between 2007 and 2012, 780,069,272 prescription opioid drugs were shipped into state, amounting to 433 pills for every man, woman, and child in the state of West Virginia (Eyre, 2016a). A single pharmacy in the town of Kermit, WV (population 392) received nearly 9 million hydrocodone pills in a period of two years. In Wyoming County, a mom-and-pop pharmacy in Oceana, WV received 600 times as many oxycodone pills than the corporate Rite Aid pharmacy just eight blocks away. This essentially unfettered flooding of prescription opioids into the state has resulted West Virginia having the top four counties – Wyoming, McDowell, Boone, and Mingo – in the United States for fatal overdoses related to prescription opioid drugs, with two more – Mercer and Raleigh – also in the top ten. Logan, Lincoln, Fayette, and Monroe counties sit in the top twenty counties for opioid-related fatal overdoses.

West Virginia map of opioid overdoses, by county

Photo Source: Gazette-Mail

To make matters worse, state regulations have required wholesale distributors to set up systems to identify “suspicious” orders for highly addictive narcotics, and to report those questionable orders to the state’s pharmacy board, a regulation that drug companies ignored. Between 2001 and June 2012, the pharmacy board received just two reports – both from Cardinal Health; since June 2012, 7,200 reports about suspicious orders have been faxed in to the pharmacy board. This sudden flow of reports only came after former Attorney General Darrell McGraw filed lawsuits against fourteen drug wholesalers. Despite these reports, the pharmacy board did nothing with them, even failing to investigate or forward the reports on to law enforcement authorities (Eyre, 2016b). The state recently reached a $3.5M settlement with drug wholesaler, H.D. Smith Wholesale Drug Company over its role in the problem (Associated Press, 2017).

The state has since made receiving these drugs more difficult, which has led many patients addicted to them to turn to cheaper, more readily available heroin, and as such has resulted in a sharp increase in the number of heroin-related overdoses, deaths, and disease transmissions (primarily Hepatitis B and C). The state’s first syringe exchange programs opened in the Fall of 2015, which will hopefully stem the spread of disease, but they are located only in the state’s major cities. Additionally, treatment facilities for addition are vastly overcrowded, underfunded, and unaffordable for those whose meager resources are already stretched past the point of breaking.

West Virginia continues to be a state to monitor, along with Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, where opioid addiction can often lead to the rampant spread of blood borne diseases that were once rare in the region. It is difficult to overstate the severity of the epidemic, and HEAL Blog will do its best to report on the situation.

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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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Milk, Bread, Ground Beef, and Overdose Medication

By: Marcus J. Hopkins, Blogger

The HEAL Blog has been following the issue of opioid addiction very closely, largely because Injection Drug Users (IDUs) represent a large proportion of new Hepatitis C (HCV) infections in the U.S., particularly in rural parts of the country. The Appalachian Mountain region serves as a prime example of how heroin and opioid addiction can lead to a rash of both HIV and HCV outbreaks; it also serves as excellent proving grounds for how Harm Reduction methods can help to prevent mass outbreaks, as well as save lives.

Harm Reductions measures are those that focus on preventive measures that have been shown to lessen the risk to individuals through various legal means. As they relate to opioid addiction, one of the most important measures is increased access to Naloxone, a medication that is used to block the effects of opioid drugs, such as slowed breathing and loss of consciousness. Naloxone – sold under the brand name, Narcan – is a nasal spray that is used to counteract the effects of an opioid overdose. It is currently listed on the World Health Organization’s “List of Essential Medicines,” the most important medications needed in a basic health system, and increasing ease of access without a prescription is something for which advocates have long fought.

Last week, in the city of Huntington, WV, 26 people overdosed on opioid drugs in a period of only four hours from a particularly potent batch of heroin. Of those 26 overdose cases, none of the patients died, as first responders and hospitals were quick to react, delivering a total of 12 doses of Naloxone, including the two used by Huntington police. One patient had to be revived using three doses (Struck, 2016). The remaining patients were revived using bag valve masks, a handheld device used to provide ventilation to patients who aren’t breathing. The users who overdosed ranged in age from 20 to 59, demonstrating that the opioid epidemic affects people of virtually every age range. In Cabell County, where Huntington is located, there were 440 overdoses by June of this year, 26 of which resulted in death; the state of West Virginia, itself, ranks highest in the number of overdose deaths in the U.S.

In Kentucky, the next state over and less than fifteen miles from Huntington, Kroger grocery store locations with pharmacies on site began offering Naloxone over the counter without a prescription at 96 locations, including 80 pharmacies in the Louisville Division (Warren, 2016). Kentucky currently ranks in the top five states for overdose deaths, which makes it an excellent test market for the efficacy of offering Naloxone without a prescription. That said, the Kroger locations in Ashland, KY – the city nearest Huntington, WV – does not yet offer the drug over the counter.

Naloxone rescue kit

Photo Source: Yourblogondrugs.com

When we discuss expanding Naloxone access, there are a number of ways that access can be broadened – (1.) Naloxone can be carried by first responders; (2.) Naloxone can be carried also by state employees (such as school officials); (3.) Naloxone can be sold without a prescription to anyone. WV does not currently allow the sale of Naloxone without a prescription, although WV HB 4035 seeks to do just that. Access to first responders, including police and other emergency personnel, was expanded beyond just Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs) in May of this year, but it is unclear, yet, whether or not HB 4035 will be ratified and made into law by the end of this year. In an election year, particularly in the latter half, little of substance seems to get done.

What is important, however, is that we continue to fight to expand access to this lifesaving drug. Politics and personal peccadillos aside, saving someone’s life should never fall prey to moralizing of whether or not opioid abuse is wrong, nor should saving a life be predicated upon whether or not one agrees with the lifestyle choices of the victim. When lives are at risk, every reasonable action should be taken to ensure that those lives are saved.

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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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220 is the Magic Number

By: Marcus J. Hopkins, Blogger

Earlier this month, The Wall Street Journal reported that the CDC has listen 220 counties in the United States as being at high risk of an HIV and/or Hepatitis C outbreak, largely related to opioid Injection Drug Use/Users (IDUs). Out of over 3,100 counties in the U.S., these 220 counties – including Scott Co., Indiana, home of one of the highest profile mass HIV/HCV outbreaks in recent U.S. history – share specific factors that seem to be related to a high rate of new HIV/HCV infections, such as high unemployment rates, overdose deaths, and sales of prescription opioid painkillers.

For those of us who have been covering opioid prescription and heroin abuse issues, none of this is news. These factors have long been contributing factors to opioid and heroin abuse, but because of the remote nature of many of these counties, little attention was ever paid and little due diligence was ever done in the way of addressing their needs. These areas, while rich in natural beauty and great for those who prefer life away from the so-called “Big Cities,” are also home to some of the highest levels of endemic poverty in the U.S. Economic development in these areas has been hampered by a number of issues – lack of qualified workers, resistance or reluctance to modernization (many of these counties still lack adequate high-speed Internet access), the remote nature of the areas in relation to centers of commerce, and a regional distaste for “outsiders” – all of which leaves residents with few, if any, good options for work. Residents are lucky to find full-time employment at all, and many are forced to subsist off of part-time and contract work, the opportunities for which are few and far between.

With endemic unemployment and poverty rates high, the sad fact is that sheer boredom comes into play as a factor for drug abuse. Many of my high school friends who ended up addicted to prescription opioid drugs started not because they suffered from high levels or long-lasting chronic pain, but because they were bored, and there was nothing else to do, except for snort some pills; once those pills were made “abuse proof,” they learned how to cook them down, filter out the plastic coating with a piece of mesh, and inject them directly into their bloodstreams. Once needles come into play, what was once a way to survive the boredom turns into a full-blown addiction, anecdotally harder to kick than any other.

Map of the United States showing counties at risk for HIV and HCV outbreaks

Photo Source: Wall Street Journal

Of the 220 suspect counties shown on the WSJ’s map, the vast majority cover Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia, three states as well known for their contribution to the entertainment industry’s portrayal of poverty as they are for hillbilly jokes. The jovial Appalachians from the Beverly Hillbillies still serve as a point of reference for outsiders, but that well-meaning-yet-easily-conned stereotype bears little resemblance to real life Appalachians, where striking oil would be the best thing to ever happen, but residents are far likelier to tap a vein for injection, rather than natural resources.

Compounding the problem is the reality that the remote nature of these counties makes increasing access to adequate healthcare and treatment services both difficult and costly. While telemedicine is quickly becoming a valuable resource, those resources are already stretched to capacity, with few applicants lining up for jobs and limited financial means to pay for additional staff. All three of the aforementioned states are currently facing massively budget shortfalls for a variety reasons, one of which includes the flight of higher-income citizens to states with better job prospects, leaving them to rely upon an increasingly impoverished tax base, which bodes poorly for advocates of additional funding.

Confronting this high-risk label is going to be a unique challenge for the counties in question, and there are no easy answers or quick fixes. This is going to be a multi-year, if not multi-decade, fight to expand educational, employment, and economic opportunities to these areas that will help address generations of poverty and joblessness. Those efforts must be accompanied by concurrent healthcare efforts, without which I fear that we will continue to see high levels of opioid abuse and equally high levels of accompanying HIV and HCV infections.
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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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Appalachian Syringe

By: Marcus J. Hopkins, Blogger

If the heroin epidemic of the 1970s taught us anything, it’s that heroin use mostly affects the inner city minority communities, so white people who live outside of those cities don’t have anything to worry about, right?

Wrong. Much to the chagrin of anti-drug propagandists, this narrative was then, and is now, entirely false. One of the biggest fallacies of America’s drug policy is the fact that most of the prevention-based legislative efforts have been based off of similar false narratives, shoddy “science (most of which is relegated to stereotyping drug users), and a desire to punish, rather than prevent.

The latter – punishment over prevention – is a recurring theme in American drug politics, and that is arguably best reflected in how our states approach the issue of syringe exchanges. Despite the Appalachian Region (including AL, GA, KY, MD, MS, NY, NC, OH, PA, SC, TN, VA, & WV) having some of the highest rates of opioid prescriptions per 100 people, the highest rates of Hepatitis B and C, and some of the highest opioid-related overdoses in the nation, there has been little political will to enter into the scientifically uncontroversial, but politically controversial, business of syringe exchanges.

droppedimage

Photo Source: Bathroom Sketch

The premise behind syringe exchanges is this – we understand that people are going to use injection drugs; providing them with a safe way and place to exchange used needles for clean ones helps to stem the spread of virulent diseases that often run rampant within these communities. Sadly, the punishment-based approach to dealing with drug abuse operates off the premise that drug abusers know the risks of their bad habits, and if they’re stupid enough to use injection drugs, they deserve whatever health consequences come their way. Not only is that premise callous, it is also costly.

In the past few years, some states have begun to learn this lesson the hard way – Scott County, Indiana’s 2015 epidemic of IDU-related HIV and HCV, for example – and have begun to recognize that the conventional approach to dealing with the opioid and heroin epidemics has been largely unsuccessful. Rather than quelling the epidemic, the punitive approach to coping with addiction has simply driven it underground where it cannot be effectively monitored, diagnosed, or treated. This has helped to create a dangerous breeding ground for the spread of disease as a result of IDU that was largely thought to have ended in the 1990s.

Thankfully, several states’ law enforcement communities and local governments have recognized that the punitive approach to this problem has not brought about satisfactory results, and have come to be some of the most ardent supporters of both syringe exchange programs and rehabilitative and recovery services – two measures that research indicates as being the most effective tools in stemming the spread of preventable IDU-related disease exposure. These programs also offer support staff who are there to engage participants in confronting their problems with addiction, as well as helping to provide linkage to other important social services, such as housing and healthcare.

While we clearly have a long way to go in providing addiction and recovery services to the underserved communities in Appalachia, there are positive strides being made and steps being taken, although this is happening mostly on the local level. The best way to extend these programs to hard to reach communities is to advocate for their inclusion in state-level legislative initiatives, and doing that will require advocates to demonstrate how these programs help to save states money in these times of economic uncertainty. When faced with empirical and quantitative evidence, even the most fiscally conservative debt hawk can’t deny that these measure save not only lives, but precious resources.
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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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