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Harm Reduction: A Missing Piece to the Holistic Care of Patients Who Inject Drugs

The rise in injection drug use (IDU) has led to an increase in drug-related infections. Harm reduction is an important strategy for preventing infections among people who inject drugs (PWID). A study, published in Open Forum Infectious Diseases, evaluated the harm reduction counseling that infectious diseases physicians provide to PWID presenting with infections.

An electronic survey was distributed to physician members of the Emerging Infections Network to inquire about practices used when caring for patients with IDU-related infections.

In total, 534 ID physicians responded to the survey. Of those, 375 (70%) reported routinely caring for PWID. Most respondents report screening for HIV and viral hepatitis (98%) and discussing the risk of these infections (87%); 63% prescribe immunization against viral hepatitis, and 45% discuss HIV PrEP. However, 55% of respondents (n = 205) reported not counseling patients on safer injection strategies. Common reasons for not counseling included limited time and a desire to emphasize antibiotic therapy/medical issues (62%), lack of training (55%), and believing that it would be better addressed by other services (47%). Among respondents who reported counseling PWID, most recommended abstinence from IDU (72%), handwashing and skin cleansing before injection (62%), and safe disposal of needles/drug equipment used before admission (54%).

Conclusions: Almost all ID physicians report screening PWID for HIV and viral hepatitis and discussing the risks of these infections. Despite frequently encountering PWID, fewer than half of ID physicians provide safer injection advice. Opportunities exist to standardize harm reduction education, emphasizing safer injection practices in conjunction with other strategies to prevent infections (eg, HIV PrEP or hepatitis A virus/hepatitis B virus vaccination).

Access full study results here.