Tag Archives: opioids

amfAR Releases Opioid & Health Indicators Database

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

amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research, has published their latest site, “Opioid & Health Indicators Database,” which pulls together, for each state, trends over time in opioid use and related infectious disease mortality, as well as state-by-state levels of Federal funding (Melville, 2017). The site was revealed at last week’s Association of Nurses in AIDS Care (ANAC) 2017 conference by Alana Sharp, MPH, from the Foundation of AIDS Research, a private organization that focuses on the various research and databases that informs their reporting.

AmfAR logo

Photo Source: amfAR

The website pulls together various data from a variety of sources and present this data for every state in the U.S., and puts them in the context of HIV, Hepatitis C (HCV), and the opioid crisis. This unique site is one of the first to actively connect these types of data in a user-friendly manner. They also make use of the supplemental data used to compile a list of 220 counties in the U.S. most at risk of HIV and/or HCV outbreaks due to a variety of similar circumstances that include: Drug Overdose Mortality, Prescription Opioid Sales, Mental Health Services, Insurance Coverage, Urgent Care Facilities, Vehicle Availability, Education, Income, Population Density, Poverty, Race/Ethnicity, Unemployment, Urban/Rural Status, and Buprenorphine Prescription Capacity (Van Handel, et al., 2016b).

Opioids Amplifying Impacts on HIV and HCV

Photo Source: opioid.amfar.org

From the front page, users select their either the state or congressional district from one of two dropdown boxes, and receive a fresh page that provides information. For states, the first page displays information on the Most Vulnerable Counties, taken from the Van Handel report, and after a click-thru, lands on a page that lists a considerably deep level of state statistics, including demographic data, HIV and/or HCV populations, opioid use statistics, healthcare-related statistics, and treatment and prevention services information, all of which are set against national statistics (e.g. – Percentage of People without Health Insurance (2015): West Virginia – 11.5%; National – 13.0%). After the numerical presentation, you can scroll down for more in depth coverage about state opioid policies, graphs of state health trends, Federal funding from various agencies, as well as a data explorer, that provides county-by-county HIV and HCV incidence and prevalence data broken, the same data by congressional districts, and by state for comparison.

If users select their congressional district, they’re asked to provide their zip/postal code, and are provided with a district profile providing numerical data similar to the state profile, and follows with the same graphic representation of data as presented on the state level, but Congressional district-specific.

This database, one of the first of its kind, helps provide a fantastic resource for state-level advocates and policy makers for informing good policy planning and crafting. For more information, please visit amfAR’s website at the following address: http://opioid.amfar.org.

References:

  • Melville, N.A. (2017, November 08). Opioid Crisis Inflaming Hep C, HIV in Hard-Hit Communities. New York, NY: Medscape, LLC: News: Conference News. Retrieved from: https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/888219
  • Van Handel M.M., Rose C.E., Hallisey E.J., Kolling J.L., Zibbell J.E., Lewis B., Bohm M.K., Jones C.M., Flanagan B.E., Siddiqi A.E., Iqbal K., Dent A.L., Mermin J.H., McCray E., Ward J.W., & Brooks J.T. (2016b, November 01). County-Level Vulnerability Assessment for Rapid Dissemination of HIV or HCV Infections Among Persons Who Inject Drugs, United States. JAIDS Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes: November 1st, 2016 – Volume 73 – Issue 3 – p 323–331. doi: 10.1097/QAI.0000000000001098. Retrieved from: http://journals.lww.com/jaids/Citation/2016/11010/County_Level_Vulnerability_Assessment_for_Rapid.13.aspx
  • Van Handel M.M., Rose C.E., Hallisey E.J., Kolling J.L., Zibbell J.E., Lewis B., Bohm M.K., Jones C.M., Flanagan B.E., Siddiqi A.E., Iqbal K., Dent A.L., Mermin J.H., McCray E., Ward J.W., & Brooks J.T. (2016b, November 01). County-Level Vulnerability Assessment for Rapid Dissemination of HIV or HCV Infections Among Persons Who Inject Drugs, United States – Supplemental Appendix. JAIDS Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes: November 1st, 2016 – Volume 73 – Issue 3 – p 323–331. doi: 10.1097/QAI.0000000000001098. Retrieved from: http://download.lww.com/wolterskluwer_vitalstream_com/PermaLink/QAI/A/QAI_2016_06_29_VANHANDELM_QAIV16762_SDC1.pdf

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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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Opioid State of Emergency Muddies the Waters

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

On July 31st, 2017, President Trump’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis put forth its recommendations for combating the opioid epidemic in the United States. It’s “first and most urgent recommendation:” “…declare a national emergency under either the Public Health Service Act or the Stafford Act” (Ingraham, 2017). The President was quick to react, promising he would do so. It only took nearly three months, but he followed through with as much forethought and careful planning as every other venture in this administration. That is to say, it did not go very well.

One of the biggest frustrations with the Trump Administration has been its members’ tendency to act with seemingly no real concern or knowledge of existing programs and systems already in place, or of any complications or repercussions their decrees and executive orders may create. Moreover, getting him to follow through on any of his promises always seems to require a Herculean effort that inevitably involves constant hounding, public comments, and eventual media shaming. Even then, after being raked over the coals, when he does act, it always seems to fall short of actually meaning or doing anything. Thus is the case with last week’s announcement of a quite limited “Public Health Emergency.”

Using the Public Health Service Act, the President declared on October 26th, 2017, a not-so-sweeping “Public Health Emergency” in an effort to combat the opioid epidemic (Johnson & Wagner, 2017). This declaration orders acting Acting-Secretary of Health and Human Services Eric Hargan to waive regulations and give states more flexibility in how they use Federal funds (Korte, 2017). It also allows the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to work around what the administration calls “…bureaucratic delays and inefficiencies in the hiring process” to temporarily appoint specialists to deal with the crisis. In addition, it allows for expanded access to telemedicine services, including services involving remote prescribing of medicine commonly used for substance abuse or mental health treatment.

President Donald Trump shakes hands with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie after signing a presidential memorandum to declare the opioid crisis a national public health emergency in the East Room of the White House, Thursday, Oct. 26, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Photo Source: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Most troubling, the action specifically:

“…allows for shifting of resources within HIV/AIDS programs to help people eligible for those programs receive substance abuse treatment, which is important given the connection between HIV transmission and substance abuse.”

This is particularly alarming, given the fact that the programs that provide coverage for the treatment of HIV in lower-income patients – namely the Ryan White program – already allow funds to be used for outpatients substance abuse treatment and rehabilitation services under both Title I and Title II. That being the case, the inclusion of this language in last week’s declaration sparked a panic within the HIV services and advocacy communities as they attempted to parse exactly what the declaration meant, as well as which programs were at risk of having their funding reallocated for another purpose. Other HIV/AIDS programs beyond treatment coverage include prevention efforts, research, data mining, and efforts at the CDC. Are those on the chopping block, now?

Perhaps the most oft-repeated refrain of 2017 has been, “We just don’t know.” Virtually every action by the Trump administration has left every department responding to almost every question about intents, implications, or repercussions by saying, “We just don’t know.” This holds true for the public health emergency declaration:

From where is the funding for these programs going to come? “We just don’t know.” Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) said the measure won’t be sufficient for most states. In Connecticut, the President’s move would free up only $57,000 in additional public health funds (Firger, 2017).

What temporary appointments can or will be made within the DHHS? “We just don’t know.” Many of the experts in these fields are either already working within the government or are working for other governments in nations where Harm Reduction is actively funded and healthcare is universally provided.

How does this declaration plan to increase access to telemedicine, and how will that access work without being connected to other recovery services? “We just don’t know.” Many of the most affected regions in the country are in areas where rehabilitation and recovery services are already sparse, and medication-assisted treatment for substance abuse is intended to be used in conjunction with those services. And, again, how will we pay for all of this? “We just don’t know.”

The President’s partial measure in announcing a public health emergency rather than a national emergency seems arbitrary to most people, but had he done the latter under the Stafford Act, that would have opened up resources that are usually reserved for natural disasters (i.e. – FEMA’s disaster relief fund) and states could have requested Federal grants for those purpose. Instead, we got an unfunded half-measure that includes some rather terrifying implications for HIV/AIDS programs, and a “Fact Sheet” about the declaration, half of which was comprised of self-congratulatory back pats instead of a detailed and specific plan for moving forward with this declaration.

Perhaps the most telling part of the aforementioned Fact Sheet was the introductory quote at the top of the page:

“The best way to prevent drug addiction and overdose is to prevent people from abusing drugs in the first place.  If they don’t start, they won’t have a problem.” – President Donald J. Trump  

Well. That certainly clears things up for everybody.

References:

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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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Drug Enforcement Has Never Been More Convoluted

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 case you’ve been living under a rock since the mid-1990s, the U.S. is in the midst of an opioid drug crisis. Since the 1996 approval and release of Perdue Pharma’s wildly profitable OxyContin for use among the general public, Americans have quickly become addicted to “pain relief” (Bourdet, 2012); not just any pain relief – pain relief that had, prior to the early-90s, been reserved only for the sickest, most severely in pain. Pain relief that turned out to be, despite Purdue’s legal defense arguments, highly addictive.

Fast forward twenty years and 200,000 opioid-related deaths later to 2016 and we find the passage of a new bill in Congress – S.483: Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act of 2016.

For those who have been advocating and lobbying for harm reduction measures that limit the number of prescription opioid drugs legally allowable, the phrase “patient access” has become something of a millstone around our necks. It seems like a benign term – what could be better than ensuring that patients have access to the medications they need? – but as it relates to the “pro pain management” movement (conveniently funded by the same pharmaceutical companies who manufacture the drugs), it inevitably winds up meaning, “unlimited and unrestricted access.”

This was the case was S.483, and the House version, H.R. 471. The house version, sponsored by Rep. Tom Marino (Republican – Pennsylvania 10th District) and co-sponsored by Gus Bilirakis (Republican – Florida 12th), Marsha Blackburn (R. – Tennessee 7th), Judy Chu (Democratic – California 27th), Doug Collins (R – Georgia 9th), Ryan Costello (R. – PA 6th), and Peter Welch (D. – Vermont At Large), was crafted in collaboration with various pharmaceutical lobbying firms and organizations to compel the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and the Justice Department to agree to a more industry-friendly law. That bill, once it had progressed to the Senate, became sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch (Republican – Utah) and co-sponsored by Bill Cassidy (R. – Louisiana), Marco Rubio (R. – Florida), David Vitter (R. – LA), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D. – RI). Sen. Hatch, himself, claims to have worked in conjunction with the DEA and Justice Department lawyers under the Obama Administration to come to an agreement on the final language of the bill (Leonard, 2017).

Drug Enforcement Agency sign

Photo Source: ABC News

Really, we need to back up a second to explain what the DEA was able to do in order to combat our nation’s prescription opioid epidemic prior to the passage of this law:

The DEA can register a controlled substance manufacturer, distributor, or dispenser if it is in the public interest after considering certain factors, including factors relevant to and consistent with the public health and safety. Additionally, the DEA was allowed to immediately suspend a registration to prevent imminent danger to the public health and safety.

The Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act of 2016 took aim at these specific powers by both narrowing down the definitions relevant to these powers, and by revising and expanding the required elements of an order to show cause prior to denying, revoking, or suspending a registration for a Controlled Substances Act violation.           The DEA, which had fought the bill for several years, lost the battle to members of Congress and industry lobbyists and was forced to accept a deal it did not want (Highman & Bernstein, 2017).

Essentially, in order to exact these regulatory powers upon manufacturers, distributors, and dispensers, the DEA must now demonstrate that a company’s actions represent “a substantial likelihood of an immediate threat,” which is a much higher bar than the DEA had to meet for four decades prior to this law. This bar is also difficult to reach, because “immediate,” in legal terms, means “right now.” It can be successfully argued that eventual harm, such as abuse of the substances by those who were not prescribed the medications or later distribution down the line by patients who turn around and resell the pills to opioid addicts, is insufficient for the DEA to perform its duties as effectively as before the law.

What was once a relatively uncontroversial bill, in public awareness terms, shot to the forefront of the political dialogue last week when The Washington Post and ’60 Minutes’ released a joint investigation into the bill’s history (Highman & Bernstein) and impact, particularly focusing on the participation of Rep. Tom Marino (R-PA), then-nominee to become the Trump Administration’s next Drug Czar.

The bill’s lead sponsor in the House, Marino spent several years trying to move it through Congress while receiving nearly $92,500 in political contributions from various political action committees representing the interests of the pharmaceutical industry (Highman & Bernstein). Marino, in a House Judiciary Committee hearing, stated that the DEA was wrong to go after legitimate drug companies as if they were “illicit narcotics cartels” (Llorente, 2017). For Marino, who represents a particularly hard-hit district in PA, his participation in the bill’s passage proved so controversial it forced him to remove his name from consideration for the Drug Czar.

The Washington Post wasn’t the first news source to pillory the law. The New York Times (NYT) first put this Act on the radar in May 2016, noting that the bill curtailed the DEA’s powers to “pursue pharmacies and wholesalers that the agency believes have contributed to the epidemic” (Harris & Huetteman, 2016). The NYT report repeatedly stated the “unintended” consequences of the Act, but went largely unnoticed during a volatile presidential campaign cycle.

The reason why I put “unintended” in quotation marks is because I highly doubt that these consequences were unintentional in nature. The language of the two bills specifically uses the phrase “current law” in reference to DEA activities and includes modifications that the bills state are for the purpose of rolling back the DEA’s regulatory powers. To say that this was “unintentional” is to defy both logic and reason. What is more likely is that the bill was sold to Senators under the guise of “Ensuring Patient Access” – again, what could be better than ensuring that patients have access? Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) believes this to be the case:

They made it and camouflaged it so well all of us were fooled. All of us. Nobody knew!” Sen. Manchin said. “There’s no oversight now … that bill has to be retracted … has to be repealed (Cordes, 2017).

Sen. Clair McCaskill (D-MO) introduced a bill on Monday, October 16 to repeal the law, along with co-sponsors Manchin, Margaret Wood (D-NH), and Dick Durbin (D-Ill. (Chappell, 2017). Marino, in typical form for the current administration, stands by the bill and reduced criticism of the bill to “fake news”:

Given these facts and the importance of this legislation, [I] find it sad and disheartening that the news media have left behind any concept of balanced reporting and credited conspiracy theories from individuals seeking to avert blame from their own failures to address the opioid crisis that proliferated during their tenure (Roubein, 2017).

Marino’s statement, blaming disgruntled employees for problems he suggests “proliferated” during the past eight years, ignores reality. For those of us in the advocacy game, the opioid crisis has been going on for nearly twenty years, under now four separate administrations. Further, the issue of massive distribution irregularities has occurred to a degree rarely seen in the pharmaceutical world.

In Manchin’s home state of West Virginia, this problem has been longstanding. 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 the 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 (Hopkins, 2017).

Supporters of the act, including pharmaceutical lobbyists, pain management advocates, elected officials, and patients, insist that the law is doing its intended job – reigning in an “out of control” DEA that treated chain pharmacies and drug distributors like “drug cartels and other criminals’ (Harris & Huetteman). These businesses complained for years that their operations have been disrupted and profits hurt by DEA investigators who ordered immediate closures of pharmacies deemed regional destinations for addicts seeking a fix (Harris & Huetteman). Pain management advocates have argued against virtually any type of legislative or regulatory restrictions being places upon prescription opioids, insisting that the needs of chronic pain sufferers outweigh the concerns of public health and safety.

These arguments come as distributors and manufacturers have been hit with several dozen lawsuits from various cities, counties, and states accusing them of knowingly distributing highly addictive substances and demanding that they pay recompense for the resultant damage their knowing negligence has caused. Rather than go to court, these entities have largely chosen instead to settle the claims with no admission of guilt, opting to essentially pay off these municipalities. It should be noted that these settlement payments are a mere fraction of the overall profits these companies have made from prescription opioid sales.

The Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act of 2016 is a piece of legislation that was written with a particular worldview in mind: “America is Overregulated.” This view seems to be held by both the bills’ sponsors and its supporters. Where this bill gets it wrong is that it takes out of the hands of the DEA the power to act in the actual interests of public health and safety, raising the bar for action to unreasonable (and, some contend, unreachable) standards. It is a gift to pharmaceutical distributors and manufacturers, alike, is a definitive step backward in the fight to combat prescription opioid abuse.

References:

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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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National Academies Panel Recommends Rethink on Opioids

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

A new report released by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) makes several pointed recommendations about the way the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approaches prescription opioid drugs, a class of pain relievers that are highly addictive and serve as a potential gateway to heroin, once supplies and sources of prescription drugs run dry (NASEM, 2017a). The panel, ordered under the Obama Administration’s FDA head in 2016, spent a year looking at the burgeoning opioid and heroin epidemics in the U.S. in an effort to better address these issues at every level of government (Diep, 2017). Among these recommendations are suggested guidelines for how the FDA considers the approval, regulation, and class scheduling of prescription opioid drugs.

National Academies of Science and Engineering Medicine

Photo Source: NASEM

Throughout the 1990s and early-2000s, pain advocates and pharmaceutical companies successfully lobbied the FDA to expand the indications (approved usage) for various high-powered opioid pain relievers that had previously been reserved for major surgeries, injuries, and palliative care. Purdue Pharma, in particular, scored a big win with its groundbreaking product, OxyContin, one of the first high-powered opioids to become commercially successful. What Purdue failed to mention while they were handing out free 30-day trial coupons for doctors to give to patients was that the drug was highly addictive. By the late-1990s, however, it became abundantly clear that these drugs had a high rate of addiction.

The recommendations put forth by NASEM as the FDA to adopt a position they term “opioid exceptionalism,” where “…the FDA thinks about opioid drugs differently from other products, …taking a public health approach to drug approvals and to other decisions about postmarket (sic) surveillance” (Servick, 2017). This would require the FDA to take into account the following:

  • benefits and risks to individual patients, including pain relief, functional improvement, the impact of off-label use, incident opioid use disorder (OUD), respiratory depression, and death;
  • benefits and risks to members of a patient’s household, as well as community health and welfare, such as effects on family well-being, crime, and unemployment;
  • effects on the overall market for legal opioids and, to the extent possible, impacts on illicit opioid markets;
  • risks associated with existing and potential levels of diversion of all prescription opioids;
  • risks associated with the transition to illicit opioids (e.g., heroin), including unsafe routes of administration, injection-related harms (e.g., HIV and hepatitis C virus), and Opioid Use Disorder (OUD); and
  • specific subpopulations or geographic areas that may present distinct benefit-risk profiles (NASEM, 2017b)

These recommendations come on the heels of a June recommendation by the FDA that pharmaceutical company, Endo, voluntarily remove its product, Opana ER, from the market in response to the public health crisis it says is in part because of illicit use of the drug by Injection Drug Users (IDUs) (Mandal, 2017). Endo recently complied with that request, despite insisting that it believes the drug to be safe when used properly (Ramsey, 2017).

Opana ER (Extended Release) is a reformulation of the drug in an effort to stem abuse by patients who were crushing the drug in order to snort it. This reformulation involved coating it with a plastic coating that Endo promised would make it “abuse deterrent/resistant.” Opana abusers, however, were quick to find a way around this by melting down the drug and its the plastic coating, filtering out the plastic through mesh, and injecting the drug directly into their bloodstream, resulting in a more intense effect (McEvers, 2016). Rather than alleviate abuse, Opana ER ended up creating a deadlier epidemic, as users were sharing needles to inject the drug, fostering the spread of both HIV and Hepatitis C (HCV). Once supplies of Opana ER dried up, those users often moved directly to heroin, as it is both cheaper and more readily available.

The NASEM recommendations will no doubt result in outcry from both pain advocates and pharmaceutical companies desperate to retain profits. Should they be adopted, the U.S. may finally be able to break its near-thirty-year abusive relationship with opioid pain killers.

References:

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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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New River Valley Region Reports Sharp Rise in Hepatitis C

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 New River is 360 miles long that spans three states – North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia – flowing from south to north (one of only a handful of rivers in the world to do so) and serves as one of the most scenic rivers in the eastern United States. It’s known for hosting some of the best white water rafting and kayaking in the U.S., and for having the third-longest single-arch bridge in the world. Nestled along some of the most rural parts of the three states in spans, the New River Valley (NRV) region is also home to a growing Hepatitis C (HCV) epidemic.

HEAL Blog has covered the exploding rates of HCV in West Virginia many times since our inception in 2013, as well as having covered those rates in the rest of the Appalachian Mountain Region (AMR). What frustrates many advocates and healthcare workers who live and work in the NRV is that the sharp increase in new HCV infections is largely a product of pharmaceutical companies’ – and healthcare providers’ – making.

Map showing the New River Valley area

Photo Source: Snipview

During the early-1990s, Perdue Pharma using rural towns and counties in the NRV as testing grounds for OxyContin, one of the most widely prescribed opioid drugs of the late-90s and early-00s. HEAL Blog has previously reported on this issue (Cassandra in the Coal Mines), and I stand by the assessment that this region and its population have been systematically targeted by the manufacturers and wholesalers of prescription opioid drugs; wholesalers have, in fact, spent several tens-of-millions of dollars settling cases in West Virginia related to oversupplying the drugs and creating “pill mills” in the state.

There is a direct link between the opioid and heroin epidemics in this region and the vast increase in new HCV infections. In December 2016, Dr. Marissa Levine warned during a meeting of the Virginia Board of Health that the state should expect a “tidal wave” of HCV and HIV primarily related to Injection Drug Use (IDU). The state saw a 21.212% increase in new HCV infections in 2015, from 6,600 in 2014 to 8,000 in 2015 (Demeria, 2016). Dr. Levine also argued that the lack of a dedicated funding stream greatly hinders the ability of the Health Department to accurately capture and track the data accurately, an argument shared by virtually every state in the U.S.

Beyond just opioid drug injection, New River Health District Health Director, Noelle Bissell, M.D., has seen a spike in acute HCV infections (as opposed to chronic conditions) linked to tattoo parlors, the use of homemade tattoo guns at parties, and in people who report more than 10 sexual partners, as well as a trend in cases associated with IDU involving methamphetamine, and in pregnant women and women of childbearing age (SWVA Today, 2017). It should be noted, however, that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) specifically states that the transmission of HCV via sexual activity is “not common” (CDC, 2015). The virus is inefficiently transmitted in this manner, and while it is possible in the manner Dr. Bissell describes, much of the data provided during screening is self-reported by patients – self-reporting may lead patients to purposely omit or skew their answers in an effort to avoid embarrassment or mask other behavioral risk factors.

The rural areas along the NRV are very likely to be hit with a greater explosion of HCV and HIV, and HEAL Blog will be monitoring the situation in the coming months.

References:

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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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A Disservice to Veterans and a Time to Rethink Opioid Distribution

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

Data obtained by the Associated Press (AP) from the Federal government indicates that drug theft from Veterans Affairs and other Federal hospitals have jumped nearly tenfold since 2009, with 2,457 incidents of reported theft in 2016 (Associated Press, 2017). What is unsurprising to those of us living in rural and Appalachian states is that most of the drugs stolen are prescription opioids. So great is the problem that two Congressional representatives – Congressman Phil Roe (R-TN) and Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) – have asked the Department of Veterans Affairs (V.A.) to better explain its efforts to stem drug theft and loss in light of data being made public (Yen, 2017).

Logo: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Source: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Opioid drugs have always been highly addictive substances, with reports of physicians and others who have easy access to them becoming addicted stretching back well into the 19th Century. That access has, over the past twenty years, become far greater in no small part due to the popularization of OxyContin and its maker, Purdue Pharma. The Connecticut-based pharmaceutical company has repeatedly faced accusations that its products and its push to make prescription opioid drugs the first choice to treat virtually any type of pain, regardless of severity, the norm in the United States. The company went to great lengths to ease access restrictions to their products and, in 2007, pleaded guilty to purposely misleading the public about the addictive nature of OxyContin, agreeing to pay $600 million in one of the largest pharmaceutical settlements in history (Lindsay, 2007). Since that time, states and cities have sued Purdue Pharma, alleging that the company put profits over citizens’ welfare (AP, 2015 & Ryan, 2017).

The recent data obtained by the AP are just another example of how addiction to prescription opioid drugs can lead otherwise upstanding and respectable members of society – those in whose hands we, as citizens, place our very lives and wellbeing – to commit felony theft in order to either satisfy their addictions or to make money off of selling these drugs to other addicts. Other relatively recent examples of opioid theft and addiction in hospitals have led to highly publicized (and costly) outbreaks of Hepatitis C in patients who were not habitual drug users, but patients under hospital care, and yet, despite the clear need to make substantive changes to our nation’s prescription opioid policies, there seems little political will to do so.

Pain advocacy groups (sometimes funded by drug manufacturers) and pharmaceutical companies have repeatedly put undue pressure on state and Federal lawmakers whenever the specter of restrictions or regulations that might restrict or reduce access to prescription opioids makes its way into statehouses. Reports have frequently been made where lawmakers have been approached, bribed, or extorted in order to block or vote against these legislative measures, even if they merely serve as Harm Reduction, rather than outright restrictions. Worse, much of the literature used in prescriber and physician education courses is written by these companies, who go to great lengths to downplay the high risks of addiction by placing the onus not upon the prescribers, physicians, or pharmacists, but upon the patients (i.e. – the patient’s body knows what’s best). The science of opioid drugs, however, contradicts these assertions.

What is frustrating about this issue is that politicians talk a big game about “solving the opioid crisis,” but they appear to be hamstrung as to what to do about the issue. Doctors, nurses, and addiction specialists have frequently presented these lawmakers with detailed, well-reasoned, and affordable plans to combat the crisis, and yet, these legislators seem more concerned about potential threats to their reelection campaigns and coffers than they do about the very real life and death addiction issues facing their constituents. It seems more important to them that Purdue Pharma and other opioid manufacturers continue to support their reelection, than it is important to help save the lives of the people they’re elected to represent.

Theft from veterans is, beyond just a sad commentary on the state of opioid addiction, unconscionable. The men and women in whose debt we all stand for defending our nation’s interests can ill afford for the drugs meant to treat them to go missing, much less for that theft to be perpetrated by those tasked with their care. At some point, lawmakers are going to have to take a stand against pharmaceutical company influence, or simply cede their seat to them, altogether. The time has come for comprehensive reform related to opioid drugs, whether or not that negatively impacts the bottom lines of these companies.

References:

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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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Widening HCV Epidemic in Wisconsin

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 state of Wisconsin has a Hepatitis C (HCV) problem; one that’s not going away, and is no longer affecting only the Baby Boomer birth cohort. In 2006, 2,355 new cases of HCV were reported by the state; in 2013, that number rose 12% to 2,638; between 2013 and 2015, the number of new HCV infections rose 42% to 3,745 in a span of only two years (Wisconsin Department of Health Services (WI DHS), 2016b).

While the incidence (the number of new cases) seems relatively low, relative to the population, it is important to remember that these numbers represent only the confirmed cases of HCV infection. Health officials estimate that there are roughly 90,000 people living with HCV in Wisconsin, 75% of whom have no idea they’re infected (Madden, 2017).

Wisconsin Department of Health Services

Photo Source: State of Wisconsin

More troubling than just the massive two-year-increase in new infections is the relatively new trend of new HCV infections amongst people aged 15-29. In the past ten years, reports of HCV have shifted from a single peak of middle age adults in 2006, to a distribution of two peaks in 2015 (Wisconsin Department of Health Services, 2016a). While the increased rate of HCV among older adults is likely the result of a new recommendation to screen the birth cohort, the new peak in infection rates among 15-29-year-olds is likely due to the vast increase in the abuse of prescription opioids and heroin in rural and suburban areas. Between 2011 and 2015, the rate of HCV infection in 15-29-year-olds increased from 40.4 per 100,000 people (2011) to 86.9 per 100,000 people (2015) (WI DHS, 2016b).

Not far behind them are those aged 30-49, with a rate of 74.8 per 100,000 (2015), up from 57.9 per 100,000 (2011), again, largely due to the increase in Injection Drug Use (IDU). It is estimated that 50% of People Who Inject Drugs (PWIDs) become infected with HCV within five years of injecting (WI DHS 2016b). Strong prescription opioids have been readily available via legitimate prescriptions since the mid-1990s to treat virtually any type of pain, during which time, prescription abuse has become a major issue amongst children and teens who gain access and become addicted to these drugs through either their own pain-related legitimate prescriptions, or through illegally obtaining prescriptions written for family members or friends.

While the prescription opioid addiction crisis has been endured for over twenty years, now, only recently have drug manufacturers – such as Perdue Pharma, maker of OxyContin and Opana, the two most widely abused opioid drugs in the U.S. – been called to account for both the addictive nature of their drugs and the oftentimes extraneous supply of medications being routed through local and family-owned pharmacies that often lack the same level of scrutiny and oversight needed to effectively combat over-prescribing and abuse. Wisconsin also does not current require a physical exam for patients to be prescribed opioid painkillers, nor is ID required for all opioid prescription purchases (HIV/HCV Co-Infection Watch, 2017).

Wisconsin also has no doctor shopping laws on the books – laws preventing patients from seeking prescriptions from multiple physicians – which limits the state’s ability to crack down on patients who attempt to gain prescriptions from various sources, as well as prescribers who are lax in their monitoring of patient behaviors. In conjunction with the latter, Wisconsin physicians and pharmacists are not required by the state to undergo mandatory education regarding appropriate opioid prescribing practices in order to ensure that they do not over-prescribe, and that they are prescribing opioids only for medically necessary reasons (HIV/HCV Co-Infection Watch, 2017).

While Wisconsin is certainly not experiencing HCV infection rates as high as other Midwestern and Southern states, such as Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, or West Virginia, this relatively sudden increase in rates and new infections is troubling. We, here at HEAL Blog, will continue to monitor the situation as it develops.

References:

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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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