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Pitt To Begin Studying Opioid Use In Hard-Hit Appalachia

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A congressional report found that in 2007, the small town of Kermit, W. Va. received shipments of nearly 10,000 hydrocodone pills a day.

The University of Pittsburgh has received a $5.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to research opioid use in Appalachia.

The region has been disproportionately affected by the opioid epidemic. A report from the Appalachian Regional Commission found that, “In 2015, the overdose mortality rate among individuals ages 15 to 64 was 65 percent higher in the Appalachian Region compared to the rest of the nation.”

Much of Appalachia is rural and sparsely populated, which makes conducting medical research difficult. As a result, drug use data have historically been gathered from mostly urban populations.

“The patterns of use and treatment in rural areas is really quite different than in urban areas in terms of the distribution network of drugs as well as the availability of treatment,” said co-principal investigator Dr. Jane Liebschutz, chief of the Division of General Internal Medicine at Pitt.

For example, in 2017, the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Services found that 50 out of every 1,000 babies born in that state had neonatal abstinence syndrome.

“[It's] pretty important to know what's going to work in West Virginia, so that 5 percent of babies are not born with a physiological dependence on opioids,” she said. “We need to have local solutions and make sure that the national ideas fit with our local setting.”

Liebschultz will be partnering with Dr. Judith Feinberg of West Virginia University and Dr. Sarah Kawasaki of Penn State University to establish the infrastructure necessary for this work. That will include hiring people trained in research methodology to gather data in settings like hospital emergency rooms, primary care clinics, jails and substance use treatment programs.  

The team hopes to produce findings that will inform local policy with evidence-based practices.

WESA receives funding from the University of Pittsburgh.