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New Study to Examine Opioid Crisis in Western North Carolina

Nov. 6, 2017 -- The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services is partnering with RTI International, local health departments, the Harm Reduction Coalition and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to develop collaborative solutions to opioid use and related public-health problems in eight western North Carolina counties.

The $1.1 million study is co-funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), and the Appalachian Regional Commission.

Heroin-related deaths in the state increased by 884 percent from 2010 through 2015. Over the same time span, acute hepatitis C infections, which can spread among people who inject drugs through contaminated needles, increased by 228 percent.

Federal health officials are looking for ways to stem the tide by funding the study.

The North Carolina project will target eight rural counties where opioid use and related problems have been particularly severe: Clay, Cherokee, Graham, Haywood, Jackson, Macon, Swain and Transylvania. Over the next two years, researchers will assess opioid injection, HIV, acute hepatitis C, and overdoses in the region, laying the groundwork for better care and treatment.

The work will begin with interviews of 80 people from the targeted counties who use injectable drugs. Researchers will also collect data on care for hepatitis and HIV patients, conduct a survey of health care professionals, and train staff in two of the counties.

After two years, six to eight of the recipients will receive another three years of funding. Those that continue will focus on expanding the capacity of clinics that treat hepatitis, HIV, and substance use through electronic medical record-driven screening and telehealth support. After five years, researchers will assess the impact of their work.

RTI researcher William Zule, a leading expert in HIV prevention, will lead the project, along with coinvestigators Sarah Rhea and Georgiy Bobashev. Rhea is an epidemiologist specializing in emerging infectious diseases. Bobashev, a data scientist, studies substance use and risky behaviors.

The grant is among nine issued by through NIDA, CDC, SAMHSA and the Appalachian Regional Commission to help communities develop comprehensive approaches to prevent and treat consequences of opioid injection, including substance use disorder, overdose, HIV, hepatitis B and C virus infections, as well as sexually transmitted diseases. Once developed, these projects will work with state and local communities to develop best practice responses that can be implemented by public health systems in the nation’s rural regions.

Jim Jones