Opioid abuse leads to heroin use and a hepatitis C epidemic, researcher says

February 22, 2018, University of Southern California
Electron micrographs of hepatitis C virus purified from cell culture. Scale bar is 50 nanometers. Credit: Center for the Study of Hepatitis C, The Rockefeller University.

Heroin is worse than other drugs because people inject it much sooner, potentially resulting in increased risk of injection-related epidemics such as hepatitis C and HIV, a Keck School of Medicine of USC study shows.

As more people use opioids, many switch to because it's more potent and cheaper - a trend that complicates disease prevention as health officials crack down on opioids, said Ricky Bluthenthal, first author of the study and a professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine.

Stigmatizing use is an ineffective way to address a public health outbreak, he added.

"The market is saturated with opiates. That cat is out of the bag," Bluthenthal said. "At this point, we have to figure out what we're going to do about opioid abuse because the opioid crisis is leading to downstream infectious disease epidemics such as acute hepatitis C."

Published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence on Feb. 15, the study surveyed 776 people in Los Angeles and San Francisco about their drug use. Researchers limited the investigation to heroin, methamphetamine or speed, powder cocaine and crack cocaine.

About 99 percent of participants who used heroin, regardless of demographics, eventually injected the drug - nearly three times the injection rate of people who used . The second most injected drug was meth or speed, with 85 percent of users reporting that they moved to injection.

Heroin had the shortest incubation period - about half a year - from initial drug use to drug injection. It took meth and speed users about twice that time and powder cocaine users nearly five times that length of time to begin injecting.

"Heroin is less expensive than opioids and more potent," Bluthenthal said. "So transitioning to heroin is reasonable. Heroin is much more efficient when injected, and that's why we see this trend."

On the road to a solution

As the nation tries to clamp down on the , it may inadvertently drive people to heroin more quickly, Bluthenthal said. The real solution, he noted, is to get people better treatment for their opioid addiction.

From 2002 to 2015, there was a six-fold increase in the number of overdose deaths involving heroin, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Hepatitis C linked to injection drug use has increased three-fold over a 10-year period, the study stated, citing research from the University of Cincinnati Medical Center.

"We want to interrupt people from escalating their drug use from legal prescription opioids to illicit heroin use," Bluthenthal said.

Possible solutions include drug consumption rooms, , syringe exchange programs, overdose prevention education and naloxone distribution, Bluthenthal said. Naloxone is an antidote for .

"We're always trailing the epidemic: We don't know there is a problem until the bodies and infections start showing up," Bluthenthal said. "We now know people are moving from opioids to heroin to injection. We missed the opportunity to change that progression, so we need to move more aggressively to reduce abuse and to implement safer venues to consume drugs. The end result will benefit public health."

Explore further: From pill to needle: Prescription opioid epidemic may be increasing drug injection

Related Stories

From pill to needle: Prescription opioid epidemic may be increasing drug injection

May 8, 2017
The prescription opioid epidemic is shrinking the time it used to take drug users to progress to drug injection, a new Keck School of Medicine of USC-led study suggests.

Fentanyl in more than half of opioid deaths in 10 states

October 27, 2017
A federal report says the powerful painkiller fentanyl was involved in more than half of the recent opioid overdose deaths in 10 states.

Fentanyl drives rise in opioid-linked deaths in U.S.

August 31, 2017
(HealthDay)—Fentanyl, a synthetic narcotic, is a key player in America's continuing epidemic of opioid-related overdose deaths, two new studies report.

Research traces primary cause of opioid epidemic—it's not despair

January 26, 2018
Why did America become so addicted to opioids?

Baby-boomers and millennials more afflicted by the opioid epidemic

November 21, 2017
Baby-boomers, those born between 1947 and 1964, experienced an excess risk of prescription opioid overdose death and heroin overdose death, according to latest research at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health. ...

CDC launches opioid campaign in hard-hit states

September 26, 2017
(HealthDay)—The U. S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has launched a campaign to reduce overdose deaths from prescription opioid painkillers.

Recommended for you

Health insurance plans may be fueling opioid epidemic

June 22, 2018
Health care insurers including Medicare, Medicaid and major private insurers have not done enough to combat the opioid epidemic, suggests a study led by researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Overdose risk quintuples with opioid and benzodiazepine use

June 22, 2018
In the first 90 days of concurrent opioid and benzodiazepine use, the risk of opioid-related overdose increases five-fold compared to opioid-only use among Medicare recipients, according to a new study from the University ...

Discovery opens door for synthetic opioids with less addictive qualities

June 1, 2018
Making opioids from sugar instead of from field grown opium poppies has the potential to solve many of the problems associated with manufacturing strong pain killers.

US doctors prescribing fewer opioid painkillers: report

May 31, 2018
US doctors reduced the number of prescriptions for opioid painkillers last year, continuing a five-year trend, in an effort to reverse a deadly drug abuse epidemic, a report released Thursday said.

Researchers publish study on new therapy to treat opioid use disorder

May 22, 2018
Better delivery of medications to treat opioid use disorder (OUD) is key to addressing the opioid crisis and helping the 2.6 million Americans affected by the disease.

Could nonprofit drug companies cut sky-high prices?

May 17, 2018
(HealthDay)—Generic prescription drugs should be cheap, but prices for some have soared in the United States in recent years. Now a group of U.S. hospitals thinks it has a solution: a nonprofit drug maker.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.