Public health experts have attributed the alarming rise in hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection rates in recent years to the opioid epidemic, and a new Rand study suggests that an effort to deter opioid abuse – namely the 2010 abuse-deterrent reformulation of OxyContin – is partly to blame.
Between 2004 and 2015, HCV infection rates in the United States nearly tripled, but a closer look showed that states with above-median rates of OxyContin misuse prior to the reformulation had a 222% increase in HCV rates, compared with a 75% increase in states with below-median OxyContin misuse, said, a senior economist at Rand in Arlington, Va., and his colleagues, , and . The report was published in Health Affairs.
The coauthors found that hepatitis C infection rates were not significantly different between the two groups of states before the reformulation (0.350 vs. 0.260). But after 2010, there were large and statistically significant differences in the rates (1.128 vs. 0.455; P less than 0.01), they wrote, noting that the above-median states experienced an additional 0.58 HCV infections per 100,000 population through 2015 relative to the below-median states).
HCV infection rates declined during the 1990s followed by a plateau beginning around 2003, then rose sharply beginning in 2010, coinciding with the introduction of the release of the abuse-deterrent formulation of OxyContin, which is one of the most commonly misused opioid analgesics, the investigators said, explaining that the reformulated version was harder to crush or dissolve, making it more difficult to inhale or inject.
“Prior studies have shown that, after OxyContin became more difficult to abuse, some nonmedical users of OxyContin switched to heroin (a pharmacologically similar opiate),” they noted.
This led to a decline of more than 40% in OxyContin misuse but also to a sharp increase in heroin overdoses after 2010.
The investigators assessed whether the related increase in heroin use might explain the increase in HCV infections, which can be transmitted through shared needle use.
Using a quasi-experimental difference-in-differences approach, they examined whether states with higher exposure to the reformulated OxyContin had faster growth of HCV infection rates after the reformulations, and as a falsification exercise, they also looked at whether the nonmedical use of pain relievers other than OxyContin predicted post-reformulation HCV infection rate increases.
HCV infection rates for each calendar year from 2004 to 2015 were assessed using confirmed case reports collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and nonmedical OxyContin use was measured using self-reported data from the, which is the largest U.S. survey on substance use disorder.