The opioid crisis is occurring with a concomitant increase in bacterial and viral infections.
The number of people struggling with addiction to opioids continues to remain very high, with thousands dying each year. Now it seems they face an additional challenge –– the risk of catching serious infectious diseases, from infection by the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus, which is resistant to most antibiotics, HIV and hepatitis.
At this point, researchers have no way of predicting when and where the problem will arise; they have only been able to establish a clear link in the rise of these infectious diseases with the repeated injection of opioids. It is also possible that taking opioids in general –not necessarily through injection, could be making people more susceptible to infection due to immunosuppression.
It is difficult to track cases of infectious diseases within this population, and opioid abusers generally do not seek early treatment. RTI International, a non-profit research institute in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, has developed a computer model for predicting the location of opioid-related HIV outbreaks based on simulation of drug users and their social networks.
Even when researchers know what’s causing an infection, the pattern of outbreaks associated with drug use may differ from that of non-drug-related ones. This makes it difficult to anticipate where infections will occur. The program considers factors including whom users know, the type of heroin available to them, and their experience with the drug. For instance, newer users, who are more likely to share needles, are at greater risk for infection.
The model predicts that HIV outbreaks will occur in concentrated geographic pockets, rather than spread over a wider area. Actual data support this result, with previous HIV outbreaks associated with opioid use following this pattern.
To stop the rise of opioid-associated infections, it will be necessary to treat opioid addiction as a disease and integrate care for infections with opioid abuse treatment.