West Virginia University Professors Outline Opioid Addiction Plan for State

School seeks to train people to battle epidemic

Photo by John McCabe
Marc Haut, chairman of the Department of Behavioral Medicine and Psychiatry at West Virginia University, delivers the keynote address during Monday’s Academic Media Day at the university. Haut joined several other speakers for a day-long look at the opioid crisis in West Virginia and what WVU is doing to help address the issue.

Photo by John McCabe Marc Haut, chairman of the Department of Behavioral Medicine and Psychiatry at West Virginia University, delivers the keynote address during Monday’s Academic Media Day at the university. Haut joined several other speakers for a day-long look at the opioid crisis in West Virginia and what WVU is doing to help address the issue.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify two points. First, while there are no bachelor’s or master’s level degree programs in West Virginia for addiction studies, there are associate-level degrees available. Second, the term “addictionologists” was incorrectly used in the story. Addictionologists are medical-degree level professions; what was discussed at WVU during Monday’s event was the need for more addiction counselors in the state.

MORGANTOWN — More than one-fifth of West Virginia’s counties don’t have professionals to counsel those who fall victim to drug addiction, and West Virginia University wants to address the need.

WVU held its latest Academic Media Day Monday at WVU’s Erickson Alumni Center in Morgantown, focusing on a series of topics pertaining to the state’s opioid addiction problem and how it should best be tackled.

Common themes noted in the presentations were the “stigma” surrounding substance abuse that keeps many from seeking the clinical treatment they need, and that there are not enough trained professionals to help the growing number of abusers.

Frankie Tack, a clinical assistant professor with WVU’s College of Education and Human Resources, said the school is looking to develop programs to train those in many health disciplines to be addiction counselors.

West Virginia tops the country in number of opioid addicts per capita, as well as the per-capita number of infants are born dependent on drugs, she said.

Despite this, there are presently no bachelor’s or master’s degree programs in addiction studies in West Virginia. There are, however, associate degree programs.

Tack said 21 percent of West Virginia’s 55 counties — or about 12 counties — have no drug addiction counselors.

Tack is the coordinator of a new program that is offering a minor in addiction studies. The program is open to all majors — especially those focusing on psychology, sociology, public health and nursing, as well as education, sports and exercise psychology.

The next step would be implementation of a certificate program in addiction studies, according to Tack. The hope is that students obtaining the minor — and, later, the certificate — would be interested in eventually obtaining a master’s degree in addiction studies.

Tack said West Virginia communities are moving from an “era of stigma to one of open dialogue.”

“We’re behind here in West Virginia,” Tack said. “What we’re trying to do is catch up.”

Providing the keynote address was Dr. Mark Haut, professor and chairman of the Department of Behavioral Medicine and Psychiatry at WVU. He was careful not to speak specifically of “opioid addiction” in West Virginia, but instead addressed the broader issue of “substance addiction.”

Haut said the same addictive substances that existed prior to the influx of opioids in the 2000s still are problematic in the state — especially alcohol.

“Our alcohol problems have not gone away,” Haut said. “If we just talk about the opioid problem, we miss the big picture.”

Methamphetamine — also known as “crystal meth” — is the drug now growing most in popularity in the state, according to Haut. He also provided a theory on why substance addiction has become so prevalent in West Virginia.

“Why is it ripe in the state?” he said. “It runs in families.”

Dr. Cassie Leonard, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology in the WVU School of Medicine, spoke of the high number of babies in West Virginia who are substance-dependent at birth.

She cited statistics that more than 14 percent of babies born in the state have been exposed to some form of substance addiction, and 38 percent of these infants developed neonatal abstinence syndrome — exposure to drugs in the womb before birth.

“(Addicted) pregnant women need treatment,” Leonard said. “They have to know it is not a moral failure.”

The pregnant women are placed on medication-assisted treatment, using prescribed drugs such as buprenorphine, or a mixture of buprenorphine and naloxone, she said.

“It’s not recommended to taper addicted women off during pregnancy,” she said. “That’s because their relapse rate is high — as high as 75 percent.”

Even if clean at the time of giving birth, mothers often must watch as their baby suffers seizures — the most serious effect on an opiate-dependent baby.

“We always keep these babies for first five days of their life to observe them,” Leonard said. “We never separate mom and baby at WVU Hospitals. We don’t have a nursery. All babies are in the room with mom.”

A “drug-free mom and baby” pilot program has been established at WVU Hospitals, and at Shenandoah Community Health Center in Berkeley Springs, Thomas Memorial Hospital in South Charleston, and at the Greenbrier Physicians Clinic in Ronceverte.

Leonard expects the program to be implemented in as many as eight additional hospitals, and she said one of them could be Wheeling Hospital. Gregg Warren, spokesman for Wheeling Hospital, did not immediately answer a request for comment Monday.

Another presentation focused on the impact opioids have on forensic science.

Suzanne Bell, director of the WVU Department of Forensic and Investigative Science, said forensic science has become far more dangerous in recent years, as more lethal strains of opiates are being discovered on evidence and in the systems of those of those who have died.

“I have been to laboratories where they have sent people home multiple times just because they were exposed to something in a packet,” Bell said. “A high level of protection and equipment is necessary.”

Police are no longer testing certain evidence, such as suspicious powders, in the field, according to Bell.

“You can’t do that anymore because the stuff is too dangerous,” she said.

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