Conference addresses opioid crisis through community-building

Events emphasize treatment and education about drug use

A conference held at the University this week examined the use of opioids in Virginia and identified potential opportunities to translate techniques from effective treatment centers in Canada to state facilities.

The conference had two parts, the first of which occurred on Tuesday in the Rotunda. The second event, entitled “First Nations' Resilience: Two Communities Take On An Epidemic,” took place on Wednesday in Pinn Hall as part of the Medical Center Grand Rounds series. Both events emphasized methods of treatment and education about drug use and the importance of destigmatizing those who suffer from addiction. 

In addition to experts from Virginia and Kentucky, Canadian doctors and nurses from Big River First Nation and Ahtahkakoop First Nation were invited to the Rotunda event because of their effective techniques and the way they have integrated the community into helping patients who suffer from addiction. 

Dr. Kathleen McManus, assistant professor of infectious disease and international health, hopes that people in the University community will not only adopt those techniques from Saskatchewan, a region in Canada, but simultaneously draw in other individuals to create a larger impact.

Rebecca Dillingham, associate professor of infectious diseases and international health and Stuart Skinner, Infectious Disease specialist at Regina General Hospital’s Infectious Diseases Clinic in Saskatchewan, Canada were among the many experts who attended the conference. Leslie Ann Smith, an RN at Health Canada, spoke about the forms of infectious disease support and therapy available at the facility in Saskatchewan. 

With respect to which practices really aid in patient recovery, Smith noted that Stuart Skinner holds clinics every three months with case management specialized for each patient. Doctors and therapists of patients who are addicted to opioids provide guidance for every step of treatment and recovery at the facility. The program available at the reservation offers a specialized drug therapy and case by case support that emphasizes working toward building relationships between patients and the community. 

While the issue of the opioid epidemic may appear far removed from the University community, opioid use leads to the death of three people each day in Virginia, on average. Even beyond fatalities, the opioid crisis has resulted in dozens of patients in emergency rooms daily across the state alone. McManus emphasized the need for the University Health System to play an active role in combating substance use. 

“Our colleagues at Big River First Nation, when they started their program to combat HIV and substance use, they really ramped up education and even went to the high schools to talk about the issues and engage with high-schoolers,” McManus said. “They’ve also done things like health community fairs, and just been really creative in the ways they engage their community and ensure that what they’re doing does serve the community. I think that in our community here, we need partnerships between the University of Virginia Health System, the University, and the community to really decide what we’re gonna do.”

McManus called attention to the growing prevalence of opioids and mentioned the problem of stigmatization.

“Actually there are eight counties in Virginia that are in the top list of risky areas,” McManus said. “It’s stigmatized and people don’t always talk about it. So we might not even realize that someone we know is suffering or that someone we know may have lost someone to the opioid epidemic.”

According to McManus, organizing the conference was a collaboration primarily between Dr. Rebecca Dillingham, Dr. Stuart Skinner (from the University of Saskatchewan) and herself alongside the support of the Center for Global Health, the Center for Global Inquiry and Innovation, the Center for Health Policy and the University of Virginia Department of Medicine.

Amy Chan, a fourth-year College student, attended the event to learn more about substance-related issues and about what the power of community can accomplish. In addition to her interest in the pharmaceutical industry, she mentioned the importance of becoming more knowledgeable about the issues surrounding the epidemic such as the spread of infectious diseases and treatment of a national crisis on a personalized, community scale.

“I feel like it’s a moral issue,” Chan said. “There are things that you inherently need to be worried about, like the wellbeing of an entire group of people that are not being attended to. It’s important to at least be aware.” 

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