Survey Technique Shows Way to Better Understand Scope of Local Opioid Abuse

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In one West Virginia county, 1,857 people are estimated to have injected drugs in the last six months.

Public health researchers from the Johns Hopkins University, working with a West Virginia county hard hit by the opioid abuse epidemic, have developed a survey technique that helps local officials better understand the scope of their needs and response.

The study from the JHU’s Bloomberg School of Public Health, recently published in the American Journal of Public Health, closely examined Cabell County, West Virginia, which includes the city of Huntington, and estimated that 1,857 people in the county had injected drugs in the previous six months. The county has a population of nearly 95,000 residents.

According to a JHU announcement:

For their study, the researchers surveyed the population of people who inject drugs to understand their drug use and needs for essential public health services, including drug treatment and overdose prevention resources. Using these data, the study team was able to quantify the size and characteristics of the population of people who inject drugs. The study also found that most people who inject drugs in the county are white (83.4 percent), male (59.5 percent) and under age 40 (70.9 percent). Many reported injecting heroin (82.0 percent), crystal methamphetamine (71.0 percent) and fentanyl (56.3 percent) in the past six months.

“By understanding the size and characteristics of the populations in need, rural communities can tailor response strategies and begin turning the tide on the opioid crisis,” Dr. Sean Allen, an assistant scientist in the Bloomberg School’s Department of Health, Behavior and Society, said in a statement. “This research demonstrates that rural communities can leverage innovative population-estimation methods to better understand population-level needs for services among people who inject drugs,” Allen said.

Of the 1,783 overdoses Cabell County saw in 2017, 152 were fatal. That year, West Virginia had the highest rate of opioid-related overdose deaths in the nation. Twenty percent of overdoses in the state were in Cabell County.

“Cabell County may be deeply affected by the opioid crisis, but the community is resilient and making significant progress,” Allen said. “With specific information about the population of people who inject drugs, the county is able to scale its services for the need.”

The study, funded by the Bloomberg American Health Initiative, includes a toolkit for applying the survey methods in rural jurisdictions and tool to estimate an area’s service need.

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