High Rates of Hepatitis Infections and Overdoses Seen as Heroin Use Spikes in Connecticut

High Rates of Hepatitis Infections and Overdoses Seen as Heroin Use Spikes in Connecticut

Over the last 20 years drug use in Connecticut’s suburbs has sharply increased and overdoses from opioids and heroin are now at epidemic levels, according to a recent talk by Prof. Robert Heimer to staff, students, and faculty members at the Yale School of Public Health.

Heimer and his colleagues have found that most of Connecticut’s suburban injection drug users are white, undereducated, and live in less advantaged areas within their suburban communities. The results of their study showed that 62 percent are men, that only 30 percent live in their own homes, and that the majority have never married.

Interestingly, the results also revealed that 60 percent of the study participants had health insurance and had visited a doctor in the past six months, suffered from other health problems including chronic pain and depression, and 90 percent had been arrested, but generally not for drug offenses. Most of the arrests were for theft or writing bad checks.

“The image that many people have of injection drug users is inaccurate and untrue,” Heimer, who is also director of the Emerging Infections Program at Yale and a founding member of the Center for Interdisciplinary Research on AIDS, said in a news release. “We need to help these people where they live and make resources available to address a growing epidemic, one that is claiming many lives.”

Each year since 2009 an average of 222 people die in Connecticut from heroin overdose, a number that is nearly twice as high as the decade before.

Additionally, injection drug users are at increased risk for hepatitis C. In the study, 40 percent of the participants tested positive for hepatitis, although more than half were unaware they were infected with the virus. The study also demonstrated that the rates of hepatitis B were high, vaccination rates against the infection were low, and that knowledge about hepatitis viruses risks was low.

The lack of awareness about disease information and status is often related to a lack of access to support services including syringe exchange programs. “This is a failure of the health care system,” Heimer said, observing that there are intervention and education opportunities in prisons, drug treatment centers and routine healthcare centers.

Although suburban drug users usually buy their drugs in urban areas, they are more likely to buy syringes in suburban pharmacies. While most of the study participants said they did not share their syringes, heroin is a social drug which increases the risk for hepatitis and HIV transmission. Heimer stressed that it is crucial to screen for these viruses to improve hepatitis B vaccination and health services at all settings where patients and healthcare professionals meet, such as primary care clinics, drug rehabilitation clinics, emergency rooms, and prisons. “The CDC and SAMHSA [the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration] recommend these screenings. I don’t know why physicians are not doing them,” he said.

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