As drugs spread from city centers to the suburbs of southern Ohio, medical professionals are looking at innovative ways to help steep the flow of diseases passed through drug needles.
University of Cincinnati professor of internal medicine, Dr. Judith Feinberg, received a three-year grant for $900,000 earlier this month from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This grant will be used to prevent hepatitis C from spreading throughout rural and suburban areas in southern Ohio — areas that have been plagued with drug abuse and its negative side effects.
The project is called StOPHeP — Southern Ohio Prevents Hepatitis Project.
“The overall goal for the three years is harm reduction,” Feinberg said, “And to understand much more, such as how individuals are affected, what made them start injecting and giving them the resources to receive treatment.”
Focusing on 18 to 30-year-olds who inject drugs and have contracted or are at the risk of contracting hepatitis C, the project’s goal is to treat enough people in an effort to reduce the spread of the disease, Feinberg said.
Though hepatitis C is treatable and can be cured it still “destroys lives and causes illness as well as overdoses,” Feinberg said.
The grant money will go toward hiring peer navigators and outreach workers that will connect with individuals who are using drugs, or who have used drugs in the past, who have a higher possibility of contracting hepatitis C or HIV.
“It is an immense problem,” Feinberg said. “This is a compelling thing to do.”
Feinberg, who works for UC Medical Center, has witnessed the effects of this epidemic, which prompted her to take action. Working at the hospital, she saw many patients being diagnosed with hepatitis C.
“We did a big retrospective study to see patterns over the span of 10 years from 1999 to 2009,” Feinberg said. “We found that there was a two-fold increase in heart disease, a four-fold increase in hepatitis C and a six-fold increase in the use of opiates.”
Feinberg and her colleagues have found that hepatitis C and HIV are prominent in rural and suburban areas because there were previously pill mills — where people make opium — in southern Ohio.
“After they shut down and made the opiates harder to inject, we believe drug trafficking may have become an epidemic as well,” Feinberg said. “People see a market that’s thriving and go for it.”
But Feinberg said that she believes it was not always this way.
“Pills got harder to find and people liked injecting more than swallowing, so pills turned into shooting up,” Feinberg said.
Feinberg is the principal investigator of the project, working alongside co-investigator Dr. Erin Winstanley, an assistant professor of health outcomes in the James L. Winkle College of Pharmacy.
Feinberg is the medical director for the Cincinnati Exchange Project, a local advocacy organization that promotes education about the harmful effects of drugs, whose office is located at 65 E. Hollister Street. It is open every Wednesday from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.
“We are here,” Feinberg said. “We want you all alive and healthy.”