New study aims to address the opioid crisis in western North Carolina

Three UNC researchers are joining forces with investigators at RTI International to devise solutions to address the opioid epidemic and related public health problems in eight counties in North Carolina's western tip.

New study aims to address the opioid crisis in western North Carolina click to enlarge Dr. Donna Evon
New study aims to address the opioid crisis in western North Carolina click to enlarge Dr. Christopher Hurt

The $1.1-million project is a partnership of RTI International, UNC-CH, NC DHHS, local health departments, and the NC Harm Reduction Coalition. Dr. William Zule at RTI International, a leading expert in HIV prevention, will lead the project.  Dr. Christopher Hurt, Assistant Professor in the Department of Medicine, Division of Infectious Diseases, Dr. Donna Evon, Associate Professor in the Department of Medicine, Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, and Dr. Delesha Carpenter, Assistant Professor in the Eshelman School of Pharmacy, Division of Pharmaceutical Outcomes will serve as Co-Investigators on the project.

North Carolina is no exception to the vast opioid epidemic that has swept the country. Heroin-related deaths in the state increased by 884% between 2010 and 2015. Over the same time span, acute hepatitis C infections, which can spread among people who inject drugs through contaminated needles, increased by 228%.

Federal health officials are looking for ways to stem the tide. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), and Appalachian Regional Commission recently announced awards given to eight organizations to fight the epidemic. (Read more: https://www.drugabuse.gov/news-events/news-releases/2017/08/grants-awarded-to-address-opioid-crisis-in-rural-regions).

The North Carolina project will target eight rural counties where opioid use and related consequences such as high incidence rates of hepatitis C have been especially severe: Cherokee, Graham, Clay, Macon, Swain, Haywood, Jackson, and Transylvania. Over the next two years, the research team will assess opioid injection, hepatitis C, HIV, and overdoses in the region, laying the groundwork for more effective care and treatment.

The work will begin with 80 interviews of people from the targeted counties who use injectable drugs. Researchers will collect data on care for hepatitis C and HIV among people who inject, conduct surveys of health care professionals, and train staff in two of the 8 counties.

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