Rural communities throughout Appalachia and the Midwest have been hit hard with the outbreak of hepatitis C and the HIV virus. This large outbreak is primarily due to alarmingly widespread intravenous (IV) drug abuse and sharing of needles.
The abuse of prescription opioids and heroin in small cities and rural areas has led to outbreaks in areas where hepatitis C and HIV were very uncommon two decades ago. According the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of new hepatitis C infections have risen 150 percent between 2010 and 2013 with largest increases occurring in rural communities. The CDC said that between 2006 and 2012, new infections of hepatitis C in young adults quadrupled in four states: West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky. Many of these cases are linked to IV drug use. Hepatitis C infections in Ohio have increased 50 percent just over the past five years.
The large HIV outbreak in the small town of Austin, Indiana, brought national attention to this issue. Approximately 450 residents of the 4,200-person town are addicted to prescription opioids and currently 170 people in this town have tested positive for the HIV virus. Many other U.S. towns like Austin have been hit hard by this crisis and lack access to the medical facilities needed to deal with such a large viral outbreak. The town of Austin has one doctor and no drug addiction treatment centers or counselors, a stark lack of resources not uncommon among other small communities that have been hit by this epidemic.
Public officials are worried by these hidden spots of the country that are being hit by IV virus crisis. The outbreaks of hepatitis C and HIV have been a direct byproduct of the prescription painkiller epidemic in these rural areas. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, “injection drug use in this community is a multi-generational activity, with as many as three generations of a family and multiple community members injecting together.”
Pharmaceutical companies made attempts to hinder prescription drug abuse by implementing a new tamper-resistant form of OxyContin, which supposedly would make users incapable of snorting, shooting or smoking the medication. This change prompted addicts to make the switch to a much more accessible drug — heroin.
Sue Yates of Kentucky oversees drug court programs in 20 of the state’s counties, helping to divert convicted addicts away from imprisonment and towards addiction treatment centers. She said, “We have to change the way we think, we have to open our minds and think of other options and, yes, that includes needle exchanges … It’s better than doing nothing, which is what we’re doing now.”
Needle exchanges have been recently proposed to curb the spread of these infections, but lack of federal funding and opposition from the community have made them harder to implement. In April of 2015, Indiana passed a law that allows needle exchanges in counties where the state has declared a public health emergency. Kentucky passed a law in March, which allows cities and counties to open needle exchanges.
The rise of the prescription painkillers epidemic in these communities has brought the dark reality of the crisis to small towns across the country. The lack of health care options for addicts has become a growing dilemma for these communities and has brought about a surge of reformative actions to help alleviate the rise of hepatitis C and HIV outbreaks in America. Drug treatment programs can assist in mitigating these problems.
If you know someone who is struggling with addiction and is in need of treatment, please do not hesitate to call Sovereign Health Group. We assist patients with addiction, mental health and dual diagnosis conditions. To find out more about how we can help, call us at any time to speak to a member of our team.
Written by Benjamin Creekmore, Sovereign Health Group writer