Public health officials have put decades of work into the battle against infectious diseases. Now, this progress is at risk of being dismantled. A recent spike in infectious illnesses, like HIV and hepatitis, are being associated with the opioid crisis. This crisis, which kills tens of thousands of Americans each year, shows no signs of slowing. Although Americans consumption of opioids is concerning on its own, bacterial and viral infections promise to compound the crisis.
The stigma associated with drug use causes some users to avoid early treatment for infections. This hinders infection control efforts as bacteria and viruses are spread amongst users while they avoid treatment.
Some researchers working to understand these outbreaks compare the current crisis to the HIV epidemic of the 80s and 90s. As the use of opioids continues to skyrocket, associated infections will continue to be a challenge for those within public health.
One of the most concerning infections researchers are faced with is Staphylococcus Aureus. This bacteria can enter the bloodstream if a person shares a needle or fails to clean the skin before injection. Once in the blood, this infection can damage the valves of the heart. If an infection is severe enough, a heart transplant may be required.
Even more concerning is the resistance of Staphylococcus Aureus bacteria to antibiotics.
Shockingly, these types of heart infections have increased tenfold amongst North Carolina’s drug users since 2007. Researchers are working to understand these outbreaks, and some compare the current crisis to the HIV epidemic of the 80s and 90s. As the use of opioids continues to skyrocket, this will continue to be a challenge for those within public health.
While the injection of drugs is problematic in itself, it’s also likely that use of these drugs suppresses the immune system. In a study looking at over 25,000 veterans who used painkillers for pain management, those using higher dosages were significantly more susceptible to pneumonia.
Researchers have much more work to do in understanding these outbreaks. Part of these efforts will include understanding the social structures of drug users and in reducing the stigma, preventing them from seeking help.