Improve Screening for Infectious Disease Among Those with SUDs

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Introductory Paragraph

With drug use on the rise, a major concern for those with an SUD should be the potential increase in spreading infectious diseases. Infectious diseases associated with substance use, such as HIV, HCV, and AIDS, are largely contracted through both unsafe substance use conditions and unprotected sexual intercourse, a high-risk behavior that may be attributed to impaired judgment[1]. Further, those who have an SUD are often less likely to receive timely, routine health care needed for early diagnosis and treatment[2]. Left untreated, these diseases can quickly decrease the quality of life and lead to serious health consequences as well as death. Despite the prevalence and the personal and public health issues that result, fewer than half of all treatment facilities conduct infectious disease screenings as part of their standard-of-care[3] It is imperative that early screening and education be expanded and improved in order to prevent the spread of infectious disease and provide early intervention for those who are already infected.

Key Information

Hep C virus (HCV) infections tripled between 2010 and 2015.  Substance abuse and infectious diseases shared common populations, risk factors, social determinants, and even contracting venues.[4]There was little collaboration between programs that provided services to these populations.[5] Methadone clinics would be optimal venues for service integration because these clinics serve a population that is 60% injection drug users; have medical staff performing brief health assessments for all new clients; and already have some infectious disease screenings in place, including routine tuberculosis testing and intermittent opt-in HIV testing.  One study showed that 68% of opioid treatment programs nationwide had staff capacity for HCV testing, but only 33% actually offered on-site HCV testing
Awareness of HCV infection among this particular population may motivate them to reduce their consumption and hopefully high-risk behavior.

Types of Infectious Diseases Related to Substance Use

The most commonly known SUD-related infectious diseases (IDs) include HIV, HCV, and AIDS but substance use can cause or contribute to many other IDs that are life-threatening.

  • Human Immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infects the body’s immune cells that are needed to fight infections, making the person increasingly vulnerable to other infections and diseases and unable to effectively fight them off. HIV is most commonly spread through shared injection equipment and unprotective sex and cannot be cured. While there is no current cure, the early it is diagnosed, the better and longer it can be managed with medication[6] Symptoms of HIV may come and go, varying at different stages, or a person may be asymptomatic for years, increasing the likelihood of unknown transmission to others[7] If HIV is left untreated, it can lead to AIDS.

Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), the last stage of HIV, occurs when the immune system is severely damaged and leaves the person with less than 200 CD4 cells (normal range is 500-1,600 cells) or the person cannot fight off “opportunistic infections” despite CD4 counts. Without treatment, a person with AIDS will have a life expectancy of 1-3 years. AIDS increases the likelihood of “opportunistic infections” such as pneumonia, tuberculosis, and toxoplasmosis that the body is unable to successfully fight.[8] Opportunistic infections can still occur without the presence of HIV or AIDS. Continued substance abuse has been linked to “increased susceptibility to infections” and have “marked immunomodulatory effects” that prevent efficient healing and can increase the likelihood of spreading the infection[9]

. These infections can be viral, bacterial, fungal or parasitic and have devastating health effects when not diagnosed and treated in a timely manner and/ maybe exacerbated by continued substance use.[10]

  • Hepatitis B, most commonly spread through injection drug use and highly contagious, has no cure but can be managed with medication. Patients may be asymptomatic or experience acute symptoms (jaundice, fatigue, nausea vomiting) but those who develop a chronic infection “are likely to go on and develop cirrhosis of the liver,”[11] Hep B can be spread through contaminated needles as well as shared drug equipment.
  • Hepatitis C is most commonly spread through the use of injected substances, from mother-to-baby during birth, and unprotected sexual intercourse, and has a high transmission rate (50% of people with an SUD contract HepC[12]. Data shows that 50-85% of patients with HepC will have chronic infections that can cause fibrosis and cirrhosis of the liver along with hepatic carcinoma[13]. However, early diagnosis is made difficult due to the fact that HepC can remain asymptomatic for an extended period of time. Hepatitis C is a blood-born infection, meaning it can spread through contact with the blood of an infected person, whether or not that person has any symptoms.

Sexually Transmitted Infections are a common comorbidity with SUDs and pose a significant public health issue. It has been well-documented that substance use disorder is associated with high risk behaviors, such as engaging in unsafe sexual encounters, whether recreational or for the purppose of buying/selling drugs[14]. This, coupled with delayed healthcare, allows the spread of STIs to go undetected and untreated amongst vulnerable populations.

Data [15]

  • increased use of injected opioids has been linked to 400% increase of Hepatitis C and 119% increased in Hepatitis B among 18-29 year olds
  • more than 50% of persons who inject drugs have tested positive for HepC in the United States
  • globally, about ⅔ of injected drug users contract HepC
  • People who inject drugs still account for 9% of HIV diagnosis and many states are experiencing a plateau in early reduction rates
  • A large, five-year (2012-2017) cohort study for SUD-related infective endocarditis (IE) diagnosis showed: those diagnosed with IE and subsequently diagnosed with an SUD increased from 19.9% to 39.4%; hospitalizations for IE among those with an SUD more than doubled; and 50.3% of IE-SUD hospitalizations also had a comorbid Staphylococcus aureus infection (11).
  • A 2020 study of young adults (18-25 years old) who had been diagnosed with an STI showed 38.4% had also used illicit drugs at the time of contraction[16]
  • Fewer than half of U.S. treatment facilities conduct infectious disease screenings[17]
  • Facilities most likely to provide on-site screenings are: 1. Federally funded facilities, 2. Opioid-specific treatment sites, and 3. Hospital inpatient sites[18]

Implications The consequences of a comorbid SUD and ID are vast and impactful, both on the individual and the community. Below are just a few examples of the risks and implications of substance use-related infectious diseases:

  • Some IDs can be unknowingly passed to sexual partners, fellow users, to an unborn baby or to a baby through breastmilk (5); babies born to HepC infected mothers increased 39% in one year[19]
  • Continued drug use may make it easier for HIV to enter the brain, causing increased nerve cell damage and impair cognition and memory (5)
  • Data has shown that comorbidity and SUD often go hand-in-hand, with patients often having more than one type of persistent infection or disease and are more likely to have other “medical and psychiatric comorbidities” that increase the likelihood of mortality[20]. These can make it difficult to treat, as addiction treatment providers are often not trained to evaluate for infectious diseases.
  • Lack of screening and testing increases likelihood of late presentation stages in SUD-related IDs, causing unintended transmission to others and poorer health outcomes[21]
  • The social costs of SUD-related IDs[22]:
  • average lifetime medical cost of HIV is $510,000/person
  • a 2016 HepA outbreak cost $367 million in hospital costs
  • invasive bacterial infections associated with drug use cost communities over $700 million in 2012

Relevant Research

Infectious Diseases Occurring in the Context of Substance Use Disorders: A Concise Review by Kolla, et al (2020) covers the types of infectious diseases associated with SUD, the problems it poses for early detection and treatment, especially in the addiction treatment context, and recommendations for providers. It is user-friendly across disciplines.[23]

“Health Care Systems and Substance Use Disorders” (Ch 6) in Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health - highlights the need to integrate SUD treatment and care with both mental and physical health care for a comprehensive, collaborative approach to treatment. Along with interagency collaboration, increasing health coverage for SUD treatment and expanding healthcare technology and accessibility is integral in reaching more people with an SUD and provide early detection of IDs.[24]

Chapter 7 of this report discusses the proposed public health approach model based on evidence, clinical implications, and suggestions[25] The Johns Hopkins Center for Substance Use & ID Care Integration is currently working on numerous studies to test the efficacy of improving SUD and ID treatment through collaborative and integrative efforts, as well as grants to innovative interdisciplinary efforts. Studies focus on peer-supportive collaborative care; outpatient links for MAT in ED patients; telehealth ACCESS; and RAPID HCV treatment approaches for people who inject drugs[26]

Impactful Federal, State, and Local Policies

1. Virginia Department of Health’s Comprehensive Harm Reduction (CHR) program - allows CHR sites to be established in any VA jurisdiction and removes a lot of restrictions regarding safe syringe sites, referrals to treatment, testing, and access to many other services. CHR sites need authorization from the State Health Commissioner but, when approved, will be protected from prosecutorial actions regarding paraphernalia distribution (inline with treatment) and will no longer need support letters to apply.[27] 2. The CDC has launched State-led Vulnerability Assessments to use local data to identify high-risk areas, along with finding prevention and intervention gaps to develop plans to address these gaps and disparities[28]

Available Tools and Resources

1.Screening for Infectious Diseases Among Substance Abusers Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series 6 - A comprehensive toolkit created by the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, SAMHSA; it covers the definitions of substance abuse, infectious disease related to SUD, guidelines and recommendations for screening, implementation, role of the counselor, risk assessment, testing procedures (pre- and pos-), contract tracing, and so much more[29]

2.TIP 6 Screening for Infectious Diseases Among Substance Users: Quick Guide For Clinicians - this is a quick pocket-guide based off of the toolkit listed above for clinicians to reference[30]

3. CDC infographic “Addressing the Infectious Disease Consequences of the U.S. Opioid Crisis - quick look at the individual and social impacts of SUD-related infectious diseases[31]

4. The Harm Reduction Grant Program (federal program) is designed to help support community-based programs that focus on reducing the harmful impacts of opioid use. This includes overdose prevention, syringe services, and other harm reduction services. Communities can use this to implement proper and consistent screening protocols for infectious disease, comprehensive treatment, and educational outreach[32]

Promising Practices

1. Philly Website is an example of a resource for people seeking to identify if they have hepatitis, next steps they can take, and where they can find care or assistance.[33]

2. TLC Awareness Campaign "Test, Listen, Cure" (TLC) Hepatitis C Community Awareness Campaign provides information about how HCV infection is transmitted, risk factors for the disease, the importance of screening and treatment, and the availability of improved treatment for the disease.[34]

3.National Harm Reduction Technical Assistance (TA) Center SAMHSA and the CDC have collaborated on this effort to move beyond just education provision and assistance, but to expand individual and community efforts in harm reduction. This means providing support for, naloxone distribution and administration, safer sex kits, HIV and viral hepatitis testing, COVID-19 response, community stigma, and opportunities for collaboration between harm reduction and other community efforts (e.g., peer-delivered recovery support efforts)[35]

4. Project ECHO (Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes) - developed by the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center, ECHO uses telehealth technology to bridge the gap in services for providers and patients in rural communities or areas without specialists. The model provides training and support for providers, as well as consultations with specialists. This model can easily integrate screening and treatment services which are hard to come by in rural and impoverished communities.[36]

5. Hub-and-spoke model (Vermont) - integrates providers across primary, acute, and behavioral health settings to collaboratively treat patients with MAT while also addressing other physical, mental, and life problems. This interagency effort will allow patients access to all necessary treatments in a systematic implementation, including medical assessment and treatment for IDs.[37]


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