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Opioid Epidemic and HIV Outbreaks

A man sits with a blank stare on his face
The opioid epidemic has the potential to fuel H.I.V. outbreaks, especially in poor, rural communities.


It was 1981 when reports first surfaced of unusual infections spreading among gay men. By 1982, we’d given it a name—AIDS. By 1993, AIDS was the leading cause of death of all Americans between the ages of 25 and 44.

A breakthrough came about two years later when the AIDS drug cocktail was developed. Death rates began to drop and, today, those with H.I.V., at least in America, have almost the same life expectancy as the rest of the population.

The situation was under control.

Then, news came in 2015 of an outbreak in Indiana. H.I.V. was spreading like wildfire among intravenous drug users in the rural part of the state near the Kentucky border.

“Everyone we grew up with got H.I.V. in a matter of months,” is how one woman, Melissa Sword, described the situation to The New York Times.

The outbreak was eventually brought under control after an initiative was started to supply drugs users in the area with clean syringes, but the event underscored a very important point: The opioid epidemic is increasing the risk of H.I.V., especially in rural, poor, white communities.

The Risks of Opioid Use and HIV

In Indiana, people began injecting prescription painkillers after drug manufacturers reformulated pills to make them harder to crush and snort. People who turn from pills to heroin are obviously at risk as well.

In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a map showing which U.S. counties are most vulnerable to an infectious disease outbreak linked to injection drug use. The map is a solid mass of bright green in southern Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia, southern Indiana and northern Tennessee—the heart of the opioid epidemic. There are also much smaller at-risk areas across the country, including parts of California, Missouri, Alabama, Pennsylvania, Utah, Michigan and Maine.

The CDC cites specific risk factors, including drug overdose deaths, prescription opioid sales, low income, white ethnicity and high unemployment. Communities that rank high in all of those factors are extremely vulnerable to outbreaks of H.I.V.

What’s the Solution

Looking at the big picture, it’s a question of education and funding.

But, on a personal level, there are two vital steps one can take to guard against infection diseases—always use clean needles and practice safe sex. Here are a few other harm reduction techniques.

Opioid Addiction Treatment Near Denver

At The Raleigh House, getting people off of heroin is only half our goal. The other half is to teach our residents how to live a full and good life without drugs or alcohol. Each person who walks through our doors is assigned his or her own master’s level therapist who will work with residents to come up with a plan for rehab—and for life. Fill out our form or contact us today to learn more about the heroin addiction treatment program or the painkiller abuse treatment program at The Raleigh House.

Life has a whole lot more to offer you than heroin—and we’d like to help you discover it.

Tap button to call The Raleigh House.

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