Estimating the Magnitude and Characteristics of Prescription Opioid Injection Misuse and the Role of Syringe Services Programs in Response to the Opioid Crisis in the United States Open Access

The United States is experiencing an unprecedented crisis of prescription and illicit opioid misuse, addiction and overdose. Coincident with the increase in opioid misuse and addiction in the U.S. over the past decade are rising rates of prescription opioid injection and transmission of infectious diseases such as hepatitis C virus (HCV) and endocarditis. Following the 2015 HIV outbreak in Scott County, Indiana associated with injection of the prescription opioid oxymorphone, and a decade-long increase in viral hepatitis infection rates, especially in areas of the U.S. with long-standing prescription opioid misuse and addiction, policymakers, public health practitioners, and other stakeholders have become increasingly concerned about prescription opioid injection misuse and related harms. Syringe Services Programs (SSPs) – evidence-based programs that provide sterile injection equipment and comprehensive infectious disease, substance use, and overdose prevention and treatment services – have been identified as a potential key intervention in response to the opioid crisis and increasing opioid injection. However, there is limited recent research characterizing the population of people injecting prescription opioids and other drugs that can help guide how to best position SSPs to reach and impact this population. Further, the policy environment for SSPs is rapidly evolving, with multiple states enacting laws, regulations, and policies in recent years to enable the establishment of SSPs. Collectively, the research gaps around prescription opioid injection and the changing policy environment for SSPs has created a critical need to better define the characteristics of people who inject prescription opioids, to identify the services and resources needed by this population, and to understand how SSPs are navigating the evolving policy environment in order to maximize their role in response to the opioid crisis. This dissertation research aims, through the use of mixed methods, to address these knowledge and policy gaps through: 1) systematically reviewing the literature to synthesize what is known about the population of individuals who inject prescription opioids in the U.S.; 2) estimating the magnitude of prescription opioid injection in the United States; 3) examining overall, sociodemographic, and substance use trends and correlates of prescription opioid injection among a nationally representative sample to identify populations at-risk for prescription opioid injection and related harms; and 4) using these quantitative findings to inform a qualitative exploration of SSPs’ responses to the rapidly changing policy environment in the midst of the evolving opioid epidemic and how they can be further leveraged to reduce the harms associated with opioid injection. This dissertation accomplishes these aims through three separate, but related studies. Taken together, the new knowledge produced from this dissertation can be used to inform the development, prioritization, and implementation of policies, programs, and practices that aim to reduce prescription opioid injection and its related harms and expand the role of SSPs in response to the U.S. opioid crisis.

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