The opioid epidemic is fueling other potentially deadly diseases. HIV, Hepatitis C, and endocarditis are all on the rise.
Drug users sharing syringes and using dirty needles off the ground are creating a public health crisis in Massachusetts.
It’s what health experts are calling the opioid syndemic- an epidemic that leads to more epidemics.
Dr. Al DeMaria explained to Boston 25 News Reporter Stephanie Coueignoux, “The opioid epidemic is horrendous even without the infectious diseases. Many lives are being destroyed. Many families are being destroyed. It's bad in and of itself.”
DeMaria is the Medical Director of Infectious Diseases for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. He says the number of opioid-related deaths is staggering- and close to reaching the levels of the AIDS epidemic back in the 80's and 90's.
DeMaria says the opioid epidemic is a very personal issue in Massachusetts, affecting family members, neighbors, and co-workers.
It’s an issue Larry Day knows very well. Now the program director for the Boston Living Center, Day says he was addicted to heroin for a good portion of his life.
He was diagnosed with HIV in 1996.
"I never thought, just like most people it wouldn't happen to me. I made a point of using clean needles, I never shared, did all the right things, and then one day I was sick,” Day says, "You figure I'm an addict, you get sick, I'm gonna shoot some dope and it will go away. Didn't happen."
Day was also diagnosed with endocarditis and Hepatitis C. More than 20 years later, he takes close to 40 pills a day to manage his HIV and other health problems.
These diseases are treatable, and individuals can live healthy lives if they receive the proper medication. But health experts say connecting injection drug users to treatment can be difficult.
DeMaria believes fentanyl is driving the recent HIV outbreak in the Merrimack Valley where 68 new infections have been reported since the start of 2017.
“We're losing thousands of people to opioids- especially after introduction of fentanyl,” DeMaria says.
Because fentanyl provides a short and intense high, the user has to shoot up more often to maintain that high.
Judy Lethbridge has been tracking the HIV cluster at the Lowell Community Health Center.
“When you need that hit, you need that hit. It's tragic. We've heard stories of people picking up needles on the street and using them. Who knows how many people previously used that needle.”
DeMaria says along with treatment options, clean needle exchanges are key to addressing this health crisis.
“We shouldn't lose track- the problem is ultimately the underlying substance use and until we deal with the underlying substance use in an effective way, we can't deal with the infections.”
Day also agrees, "People need to be able to access clean needles. It's crazy to think more access will lead to more drug use, that's not how it works."
DeMaria says alternative medications- like methadone and suboxone is another effective way to address the opioid crisis.
Another unexpected consequence of opioid use? Memory loss.
While research is ongoing, DeMaria says they have linked it to fentanyl’s effect on the brain.
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