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New study aims to address opioid crisis in western North Carolina

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, North Carolina — RTI International is among a group of organizations that will collaborate on solutions to opioid use and related public-health problems in an eight-county region at North Carolina’s western tip.

North Carolina is no exception to the opioid epidemic that has swept the country. Heroin-related deaths in the state increased by 884 percent 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 percent.

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 8 awards to fight the epidemic.

The North Carolina project will target eight rural counties where opioid use and related problems have been especially severe: Cherokee, Graham, Clay, Macon, Swain, Haywood, Jackson, and Transylvania. Over the next two years, researchers will assess opioid injection, HIV, acute hepatitis C, and overdoses in the region, laying the groundwork for better care and treatment.

The $1.1-million project is a partnership of RTI International, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, local health departments, and the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition.

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 and HIV patients, conduct a survey of health care professionals, and train staff in two of the eight counties.

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

RTI researcher William Zule will lead the project, along with coinvestigators Sarah Rhea and Georgiy Bobashev. The three are among many RTI researchers studying different aspects of opioids and the opioid epidemic.

Zule, a leading expert in HIV prevention, focuses on the transmission of disease by syringe sharing. Rhea is an epidemiologist specializing in emerging infectious diseases. Bobashev, a data scientist, studies substance use and risky behaviors.