Opioid Epidemic Elevates Related Health Risks in West Virginia


Opioid Epidemic

Naloxone is drug that can stop an opioid overdose. The Kanawha-Charleston Health Department  has received shipments of the drug, and staff host classes on how to use it to save a life. (Lara Cooper/Direct Relief)
Naloxone is drug that can stop an opioid overdose. The Kanawha-Charleston Health Department has received shipments of the drug, and staff host classes on how to use it to save a life. (Lara Cooper/Direct Relief)

Over 340,000 used syringes have been dropped off at the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department since December 2015. That’s double the amount of county residents.

West Virginia has one of the highest rates of Hepatitis B in the country. The liver disease can be contracted by sharing used needles. In 2015, the state rate was 14.7, compared to the national rate of 1. Additionally, acute Hepatitis C rates have tripled across the country in a five-year span.

While treatable, the rise in Hepatitis cases stems from a larger epidemic — the growing illegal consumption of illicit drugs and wrongful use of prescription opioids. As the rise in opioid overdose death rates impact Appalachia, and the entire U.S., residual health and social issues have emerged. Priorities for local health care professionals are shifting from simply preventing overdose deaths, to treating long-term effects. To do this, many are relying on philanthropic and safety-net aid.

Though President Donald Trump declared the opioid epidemic a National Health Crisis in August, health providers are facing the growing epidemic without federal dollars.

Dr. Michael Brumage is the executive director and health officer at the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department. Most of his work day is spent confronting the opioid epidemic locally by mitigating the effects of overdoses and infectious complications. He’s seen an increase in health risks like bacterial endocarditis, heart valve replacement, infection of the bone, babies going through withdrawal after being born, and social problems like child abandonment.

To address these issues, the department has instituted naloxone trainings and disbursement, needle exchanges, creating more medically assisted treatment programs and identifying residual health disparities like Hepatitis and HIV. They are also building community partnerships and garnering compassion for substance abuse as a disease.

These wraparound health services were created after a 24 percent legislative budget cut cost the health department several employees.

“That’s the beauty of it all,” Brumage said. “None of our supplies have come through tax-payer funded activities… It’s costing taxpayers nothing out of the personnel who already work in the health department.”

KCHD received 10 packs, about 100 doses, of naloxone from Direct Relief through a four-year partnership with Pfizer Pharmaceuticals. Every Wednesday at 12:30 p.m., KCHD’s Harm Reduction Clinic holds an auto-injector training for anyone interested in learning how to save a life. The clinic also travels around the community, participating in events to do more trainings and send naloxone kits home with participants.

Brumage says other philanthropic entities have provided funding for other needs, like a sterile machine to dispose of hazardous materials.

“We rely on the staff that’s already present in our clinic, but we’re augmented greatly by volunteers,” Brumage said.

Those volunteers are predominantly students from nearby schools, like West Virginia University, where Brumage will become an assistant dean in the school of public health. Many other volunteers are community members who want to see change.

Those volunteers must be trained. The health department has written a harm reduction manual outlining policies and procedures, needle-stick protocols and Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

“Many have a keen interest because their lives have been touched, either by family or a friend that has been effected,” Brumage said. “Some have first-hand experience and want to do something meaningful.”

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