The opioid crisis and its effect on infectious diseases

By Gary Chovnick
Gary Chovnick
Director, Research Science
Aug 1, 2019

The opioid crisis has led to a surge in infectious diseases—particularly related to injection drug use

As the opioid crisis surges, another serious but often overlooked consequence of the epidemic is the increased incidence of blood-borne infections. The opioid epidemic has fueled a surge in infectious diseases that includes human immunodeficiency virus infection (HIV), hepatitis C, hepatitis B, infective endocarditis, and skin and soft-tissue infections. Let’s look at the numbers.

Infectious disease transmission is on the rise

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that hepatitis C virus (HCV) infections nearly tripled between 2010 and 2015. This included an increase in HCV among pregnant women, which put them at risk for perinatal transmission as well. Between 2004 and 2014, hepatitis C virus infections (HCV) increased by 400% among people aged 18 to 29, and admissions for opioid injection increased by 622%. Hepatitis B virus (HBV) infections, which had been decreasing in recent decades, increased by 20% between 2014 and 2015. The rise in infections has been attributed to increases in opioid injection and high-risk injection practices such as sharing syringes and drug paraphernalia.

This growing trend of infectious diseases, particularly in areas with high rates of opioid use, has created a converging health crisis. So what can communities and policymakers do about it?

The advent of harm-reduction practices

To help address this problem, some cities are experimenting with supervised injection sites. While this harm-reduction practice is controversial, proponents say that the pros outweigh the cons since clean needles are provided, which can help prevent the spread of infectious disease. Many jurisdictions also offer sterile syringes and needles to people with substance use disorders through syringe services programs (SSPs). Regardless of the strategy employed, the need for a comprehensive and integrated approach to reducing the spread of infectious disease becomes evident when you study the trends.

To reverse this trend, communities need to work together

The scale of the opioid epidemic and the related infectious disease surge underscores the need for an integrated response from both the infectious disease and substance use communities with support from the federal government and other key organizations. CDC recently called attention to this important issue during a plenary session on the intersection of opioids, substance use, and infectious diseases during the 2019 National HIV Prevention Conference.

Now is the time for action. By increasing our awareness of this issue, continuing to coordinate the response among stakeholders, and dedicating resources to strategies such as harm reduction and treatment services, we can move closer to containing and eventually ending this converging crisis.

Meet the author
  1. Gary Chovnick, Director, Research Science

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