WVU researcher says HIV epidemic partially fueled by opioid crisis

MORGANTOWN — Infectious diseases expert Sally Hodder, director of the West Virginia Clinical and Translational Science Institute, thinks the HIV epidemic is partially fueled by the nation’s current opioid epidemic.

No state is more familiar with this problem than West Virginia, which has the highest opioid overdose death rate in the nation and its first HIV cluster where intravenous drug use is the main risk factor.

“The possibility of HIV and other infectious diseases spreading through injection drug use has been a constant concern among public health officials,” Hodder said. “We understand how to prevent hepatitis B, C and HIV, yet we continue to see new cases.”

She said current estimates place 1.1 million Americans living with HIV and that more than 15,800 people with diagnosed HIV died in 2017.

Hodder, an associate vice president for clinical and translational science at West Virginia University, was part of a national team that published “AIDS in America – Back in the Headlines at Long Last,” a perspective that provides detailed information about the ongoing HIV epidemic.

“I began my career in 1980 as an intern in San Francisco at the dawn of the AIDS epidemic,” Hodder said. “Through development of well-tolerated and highly effective antiretroviral therapy, HIV in America was transformed from a death sentence to a treatable chronic disease. But HIV never went away, with nearly 40,000 new cases occurring each year for the past decade in the U.S.”

The perspective, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, attributes a variety of social, economic and cultural barriers as factors that need to be addressed in order to combat the ongoing public health crisis. While Hodder admits this remains a serious concern for West Virginia and the nation, she believes ending HIV as a public health threat in the United States is achievable.

“There are proven strategies that we can use to help fight this epidemic,” Hodder said. “Critically important is addressing the various barriers that are preventing individuals with HIV from getting the help they need. We have the science to end HIV in the U.S., but do we have the will to do so?”