Tag Archives: Syringe Exchange Programs

U.S. Falling Behind in HCV Elimination Goals

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

Nine nations are on track to eliminate Hepatitis C (HCV) by 2030 – Australia, Egypt, France, Georgia, Germany, Iceland, Japan, the Netherlands, and Qatar. Notably absent from this list is the United States. The World Health Organization (WHO) set a target goal of 2030 for the elimination of HCV as a public health crisis in 2016. Despite this goal, only nine nations are on target to meeting that deadline.

World Health Organization logo

Part of what makes the elimination of HCV so difficult, particularly in the U.S., is the steps required to actively combat the disease: treating 7% of the HCV-infected population without restrictions; actively working on harm reduction issues (e.g. – Syringe Services Programs); actively screening patients. These three steps require making HCV a political priority at a time when other issues – foreign intervention, taxation, economic concerns, and the provision of healthcare as a right – dominate the political landscape.

In the U.S., each of these key steps that make elimination a possibility are hampered by a fundamental disagreement between warring political factions about the role of government in healthcare. The current administration occupying the Executive Branch has taken numerous steps – cutting funding, leaving funding levels flat, and cutting/underfunding staffing – that further complicate already difficult issues related to adequately combatting HCV in the U.S.

At the heart of each of these steps is the issue of funding. The high cost of HCV Direct Acting Agents (DAAs) – the current standard of care for curing HCV – has led almost every state-run healthcare program to restrict access by introducing Prior Authorization (PA) pre-requisites in order to even be considered for treatment. These PA requirements can include liver fibrosis scores (F-scores) above a certain level, that prescribing physicians either be or work in conjunction with hepatologists, gastroenterologists, or infectious disease specialists, abstinence from alcohol and/or recreational drugs for a predetermined period, and other restriction not placed upon patients needing treatment for other deadly diseases. The purpose behind these PA requirements are ostensibly to ensure that only patients who are likely to complete the relatively short regimens receive treatment, but in effect serve as cost saving measures to ensure that programs don’t have to pay for the drugs.

Harm reduction programs are equally contentious within the U.S., though Syringe Services Programs (SSPs) are gaining in popularity as a result of the prescription opioid and heroin crises sweeping our nation’s suburban and rural areas. Despite the increase in approvals for the establishment of SSPs in otherwise politically and socially conservative areas of the country, many states and Federal regulations place restrictions on how funds can be spent, meaning that syringes and other injection supplies may not be allowed to be purchased using taxpayer-funded monies.

Image promoting needle exchange for IDUs

Beyond that, local communities are beginning to experience a pushback against SSPs from residents who fear that the very presence of the programs in their neighborhoods, alone, leads to or has created a public health concern. Several counties in Indiana, where both HIV and HCV infection rates have seen increases due to Injection Drug Use (IDU), have voted to remove approval for SSPs and other Harm Reduction Clinic efforts in 2017 in no small part because of erroneous claims that the programs create hazardous waste and attract unwanted People Who Inject Drugs (PWIDs) into otherwise “drug free” communities. These fears have been stoked by elected officials (sheriffs, prosecutors, and/or legislators) who stalwartly refuse either to believe the research and evidence presented to them, or the real world results of the programs.

Screening for HCV in the U.S. is another costly endeavor, as Federal funds for state-level screening efforts fall far short of what is needed to adequately combat the spread of HCV. Moreover, there is currently no Federal requirement that certain populations be routinely screened. This leaves screening, tracking, and reporting guidelines up to the individual states, most of whom simply do not have the funds to engage in such a costly effort. Without adequate screening protocols in place on a national level, the U.S. cannot hope to meet elimination targets.

The U.S., for much of the 20th Century, led the world in the eradication of public health threats. This status has been erased, largely because of political efforts to reduce the role that government plays in healthcare compounded with the ever-increasing costs of healthcare. It is time for the U.S. to take a stand, reclaim its standing, and put behind us the burden of for-profit healthcare.

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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Scott County and Indiana’s Steep Learning Curve on HIV and 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

In early 2015, Scott County, Indiana was thrust into the global spotlight for an HIV outbreak among injection drug users abusing opioid prescription drugs and heroin (Hopkins, 2015). In a county that averaged a total of 5 new HIV infections each year, even doubling that number would’ve been a statistical anomaly. 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 Hepatitis C (HCV). So rare was the disease that county health department officials had never handled HIV cases, instead sending them all to the regional Sexually Transmitted Diseases Department in Clark County (May, 2016).

The outbreak in Scott County was, and still is, both instructive and reflective of several concurrent health crises faced by most of rural America. In one county, virtually every major health risk met in the middle: a prescription opioid addiction problem, the resultant heroin usage problem, and an access to comprehensive healthcare problem all walked into a bar, and out came one of the worst concentrated HIV epidemics in the U.S. in the past decade. Throw in a paucity of drug addiction, recovery, and Syringe Services Programs (SSPs), and you had the perfect case study for how outbreaks occur.

To be fair to Indiana’s legislature and then-Governor Mike Pence, the state responded intelligently to the crisis by legalizing for the first time SSPs…under certain previsions. Counties had to apply for approval, had to show that they had funding, and had to be located in a high-risk zone. Since Mike Pence’s departure from the state to swampier D.C. pastures, his replacement has actively attempted to ease those restrictions. Earlier this year, the Indiana General Assembly passed a bill allowing local governments to establish syringe or needle exchange programs without having to receive state approval (Rudavsky, 2017). His efforts have not, however, managed to convince everyone.

Map showing states with syringe exchange programs.

Source: HIV/HCV Co-Infection Watch

Madison County, for example, recently voted to remove all funding from their SSP, run by the county’s health department, and prohibited appropriations of funds for paying for both supplies and labor (Fentem, 2017). The ordinance, approved by five of the seven-person council, immediately shuttered the only operating SSP in the county, and was largely driven by stigma-based fears: discarded syringes were going to litter front lawns and public parks; drug addicts were going to wander over from neighboring counties, bringing their drug problems with them; “What about the innocent children?!” These well-worn excuses and arguments against the establishment and funding of SSPs have plagued the proven Harm Reduction measure since its inception. The fears are also unsupported by anything other than anecdotal evidence and hearsay, few assertions of which are backed up by any credible research or quantifiable proof.

Worse, still, is that the council members did nothing on their part to allay these fears. Council member Fred Reese is quoted as saying the following:

Some say if you don’t do the needle exchange, you’re going to have a spread of HIV, you’re going to have a spread of hepatitis C, but my concern is the innocents. I don’t want these needles out (Fentem).

This kind of statement on the part of an elected officials shows cowardice, rather than leadership. Part of the job of county councils is to do what’s in the best interests for everyone, rather than kowtowing to fear-based arguments that bear little resemblance to reality.

Clark County – where Scott County once sent its HIV cases for management – recently renewed their SSP for one year, after which it will be up for renewal in August 2018. About half of the program’s 150 participants have HCV, many of whom were diagnosed through the program (Beilman, 2017). Their hopes for the program include seeing a more balanced rate of return on needle collection. Of the nearly 16,000 needles distributed, the exchange collected almost 8,000 (Beilman).

In Boone County, where no SSP currently exists, Prosecutor Todd Meyer sent the following communique to county leaders:

A needle exchange program does not help in fighting the demand side, in fact, it will do the exact opposite by providing the users/addicts with the tools they need to continue to abuse illicit drugs…(Davis, 2017).

That this opinion was issued by a prosecutor should shock no one. Meyer’s position, however, is reflective of those espoused by [mostly Conservative] voters, legislators, and law enforcement officials, but again, bear little resemblance to reality. Instead, they rely upon fear and stigmatization, along with two terrifyingly short-sighted sentiments: “Not in my back yard!” and “It can’t happen here!” While Meyer contends that Boone County doesn’t have an HIV problem, now, let’s see if it has one in two years.

Back in Scott County, the SSP, run by the Scott County Health Department (SCHD), has another issue: it doesn’t keep track of HCV cases (de la Bastide & Filchak, 2017). For some reason, SCHD officials are only worried about their HIV problem. If that seems counterintuitive, that’s because it is. It was, in fact, a spike in new HCV cases that led to the discovery of the HIV epidemic. Additionally, with a 95% co-infection rate in the 216 HIV cases identified in the initial outbreak, as well as the more aggressive spread of HCV in the U.S. compared to HIV, it makes no sense, whatsoever, for the SCHD to fail to keep track of HCV.

The concurrent HIV and HCV outbreaks in Scott County, Indiana were just the beginning. Already, rural states and counties are beginning to see an uptick in new infections of both diseases as a result of Injection Drug Use (IDU). More concerning is the fact that most of those counties are deeply Conservative, which creates significant challenges for those hoping for proactive healthcare policies, rather than reactive cleanup measures. As for Scott County, there are several families with multiple generations infected with HIV, and very likely with HCV, as a result of prescription opioid and heroin abuse. Unfortunately for them, their county’s health department doesn’t see fit to track their issues.

Download the latest edition of the HIV/HCV Co-Infection Watch.

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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Heroin and Hepatitis Go Hand in Hand

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 year, HEAL Blog has paid a lot of attention to heroin, particularly in relation to the massive increase in heroin and prescription opioid overdoses in Appalachia, the Midwest, and the Northeast. While the purpose of HEAL – “HEAL” standing for “Hepatitis: Education, Advocacy, and Leadership” – is to specifically address issues related to Viral Hepatitis, and particularly Hepatitis C (HCV), when we cover issues related to prescription opioid abuse and heroin, we sometimes fail to connect the dots between the two topics. There is, in fact, a very high correlation between Injection Drug Use (IDU), People Who Inject Drugs (PWIDs), and the transmission of HCV: most new HCV infections in the three previously listed regions are related to IDU.

Sources of Infection for Persons with Hepatitis C

Photo Source: Pinterest

HCV and HCV-related co-morbidities (e.g. – Cirrhosis, Advanced Liver Disease) kill more Americans each year than any other infectious disease (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2016). It is also one of the most expensive diseases to treat, with Direct Acting Agent (DAA) drug Wholesale Acquisition Costs (WACs) ranging between $50,000 and $100,000 for twelve weeks of treatment. This makes preventing the spread of HCV not only a matter of physical health, but one of fiscal health.

Despite pharmaceutical manufacturers’ arguments that the one-time cost of a regimen to achieve a Sustained Virologic Response (SVR – “cure”) is far cheaper than the long-term costs of other diseases, not to mention the long-term costs that arise if HCV goes untreated, state and Federal healthcare budget departments remain unconvinced. Budgeting processes generally focus on a single year, rather than accounting for multi-year spending, so arguing that long-term expenditures “cost” more hasn’t been an effective argument. Even with the clandestine pricing agreements and rebates – clandestine, because they are not made public due to “trade secrets” laws – states have yet to begin treating every HCV-infected client on their government-funded rosters. To do so would blow through entire pharmacy budgets several times over, in many states.

With PWIDs representing the highest number of new HCV infections between the ages of 18-35, state legislatures are starting to come around to the realization that the best way to avoid spending that money on expensive treatments is to put into place Harm Reduction measures that are shown to prevent the spread of blood borne illnesses. As it is very difficult and unfeasible to stop IDU, syringe exchanges can be put into place that allow PWIDs to inject using clean needles, rather than sharing them.

Syringe exchanges have, for much of the past forty years, been largely reviled by politically conservative politicians and states; many Republican politicians have repeatedly argued that state-sponsored syringe exchanges will only encourage bad behavior, serving as a tacit endorsement of IDU. Now that prescription opioid and heroin abuse has moved outside of the urban areas and into the suburban and rural areas that serve as bastions of the Conservative ideal, suddenly, these politicians are coming around to the idea.

Medical technician counting needles.

Photo Source: Daily Beast

In the past two years, several considerably conservative states have passed laws allowing syringe exchanges to be established – Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia, to name a few – largely in response to a relative explosion of new HIV and HCV infections related to IDU. The problems that politicians and their constituents once relegated to the big cities have come to their quiet towns, and have done so right under their noses. The lessons out of Scott County, Indiana, where nearly 200 people tested positive for HIV near the end of 2015 and into 2016, are still reverberating throughout the region, and people are starting to look at ways to prevent the spread of disease, rather than punish the behavior.

It is clear that the opioid and heroin abuse epidemic is not going away, anytime soon. Since we aren’t likely to stop currently addicted people from injecting drugs, the smartest path forward is to at least make certain they can do so safely.

References:

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2016, May 04). Hepatitis C Kills More Americans than Any Other Infectious Disease. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Newsroom Home: Press Materials: CDC Newsroom Releases. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2016/p0504-hepc-mortality.html

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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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Rural Americans Still Lack Access to Syringe Exchange Programs

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 HEAL Blog  covers the expansion of Syringe Exchange programs as an effective and proven method of Harm Reduction to prevent the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C (HCV). While there have been some notable successes over the past few years, especially in states where rural transmission of both HIV and HCV is increasing, the stark reality is that these areas largely lack access to the Syringe Exchange programs that could help to stanch the spread of deadly diseases that are easily spread through sharing and reusing needles.

A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), decreases in HIV diagnoses in People Who Inject Drugs (PWIDs) indicate success in HIV prevention. However, emerging behavioral and demographic trends could reverse this success (Wejner, et al, 2016). In terms of demographics of PWIDs, both African-Americans and Hispanic populations have seen consistent and rapid downward trends in all three areas: HIV diagnoses among PWIDs, those who shared syringes to inject drugs, and people who reported injecting drugs for the first time. Whites, but urban and non-urban, however, did not fare well in these measures.

In both Urban and Non-Urban settings, new HIV diagnoses amongst white PWIDs saw a slight increase; the same is true of whites who shared syringes to inject drugs; whites made up over 50% of people who reporting injecting drugs for the first time. This shouldn’t come as a big shock to those who have been following drug usage trends – the abuse of opioid prescription drugs and heroin in rural and suburban areas has spiked significantly, over the past twenty years, as we have covered in previous posts – areas where the population tends to skew heavily to the White.

Sign reading, "HIV Needle Exchange"

Indiana Needle Exchange

While Syringe Exchange Programs (SEPs) have grown more common in urban areas, people living in largely rural states, rural areas, and suburban areas have again fared poorly in this regard. A 2015 report from the CDC surveyed 153 SEP directors (out of the then 204, in March 2014), and found that only 9% of SEPs were in Suburban areas and only 20% in Rural areas (Des Jarlais, et al., 2015). The areas hardest hit by the increase in PWIDs – the Northeast, South, and Midwest – had a total of 11 SEPs in Rural areas; the West, by comparison, had 18 in Rural areas. While this data is from 2013, and more SEPs have been opened, it is difficult to get a definitive count of the number of operative SEPs.

From a health emergency perspective, we have a White HIV crisis brewing in rural and suburban America. Beyond the issues related to PWIDs, there is also the increase risk of sexual transmission from PWIDs to those who do not inject drugs. Whites have consistently represented the largest number of new infections, since the beginning of the epidemic (not to be confused with the disproportionate rate of infection amongst minority groups), and for the first time in 2014, White PWIDs had more HIV diagnoses than any other racial or ethnic population in the country (Sun, 2016). State and Federal laws – especially in rural states – continue to present barriers to establishing and funding SEPs in areas that are the hardest hit.

One of the most frustrating aspects of reporting healthcare statistics is the reporting lag; the references used in this post present data that is at least two years old. This problem exists because of the time it takes for states to finalize data, in addition to the time it takes for peer reviewing before publication. While there were 204 operating SEPs in the U.S. in 2013/2014, it’s now 2016, and we could use some updated numbers.

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 Case of Northern Overexposure

By: Marcus J. Hopkins, Blogger

The face of Hepatitis C (HCV) continues to change, as the State of Alaska Section of Epidemiology is reporting – nay, warning – of yet another example of rapid increase in HCV rates among people aged 18-29 (State of Alaska, 2016). Of the 1,486 cases of HCV reported in 2015, the aforementioned age group represented 459 of those cases – roughly 31% – putting them on par with people aged 30-49 (461, roughly 31%). The remaining cases in 2015 were seen in people aged 50 or older.

This data conforms to national trends in HCV. While the majority of cases tend to occur within the 50+ age range, the fastest rate of increase continues to exist amongst the young, largely driven by opioid prescription drug and heroin abuse. Injection Drug Use (IDU) is consistently pegged as the largest driver of new infections, and the problem continues to grow and more people are being prescribed addictive prescription opioid drugs for pain management for injuries that may not necessitate them.

While opioid and heroin IDU is a growing problem, Alaska has long been utilizing Harm Reductions methods to attempt to mitigate the harm to IDUs. Four Syringe Exchange Programs (SEPs) are currently operating in Alaska in four cities: Anchorage, Fairbanks, Homer, and Juneau. Only once of these cities – Juneau – is present in the hardest hit region of the state, where the rate of infection for 18-29-year-olds saw a 490% increase from 2011-2015. Of further concern is that no SEP programs are operative in other parts of the state, which means that people in those areas are least likely to receive IDU support services.

The State of Alaska is quick to state that these data should not be considered the final word on HCV infections for 2015; many people who are infected with HCV are not diagnosed until years after the initial infection (Juneau Empire, 2016).

In similar news, Clark County in Indiana has become the sixth county in the state to qualify for permission to open an SEP under a 2015 emergency law that allows states to open an approved exchange if the state’s health commissioner declares a public health emergency in the county (. This was in response to a massive outbreak of HIV and HCV in southern Scott County in late-2014/early-2015 related to IDU.

While Clark County has received approval for the opening of an SEP, it spent a full eight months attempting to work out issues with its initial application. The primary issue, according to County Health Commissioner Kevin Burke, was that state officials didn’t support how the SEP would have been funded. Funding for the program was and will be provided by the Los Angeles-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF), which has garnered both high praise and sharp criticism in its approach to negotiating contracts with states and counties. After the problematic funding models were hammered out, a second application was submitted and approved.
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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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