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Channeling John Snow: Poisoning Data for HIV/HCV Prevention

Posted By Nate Wright, Tuesday, December 27, 2016
Updated: Tuesday, December 20, 2016

It is difficult to distill my experiences as a CSTE Applied Epidemiology Fellow (AEF) in the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) into one blog post. I hit the ground running from day one of my fellowship and have been enjoying the experiences ever since. Primarily, my work focuses on suicide and drug overdose, but those topics encompass and overlap considerably with other related public health matters. For example, my projects have included evaluating Minnesota’s Violent Death Reporting System, examining American Indian drug overdose deaths in Minnesota, working with Minnesota’s American Indian community to address the drug overdose crisis, and providing epidemiological assistance to a concerned Minnesota community that saw an increase in suicides from a bridge. I have also presented at local, state, regional, and national conferences, and have produced work for various publications. These are some of the projects I expected from my AEF, but I have also been involved with projects I never would have anticipated, such as evaluating the public health impact of a new statute in Minnesota that allows for religious objections to autopsies.

One project that I am proud of, and has been rewarding to work on, has been our efforts to better understand counties in Minnesota that may be at higher risk for an outbreak of HIV or Hepatitis C Virus (HCV) associated with injection drug use. The 2014 outbreak of HIV associated with injection drug use in Indiana raised concerns about the ability to detect and respond to a similar outbreak in Minnesota. A workgroup at the MDH was convened with participation from both infectious disease and injury prevention units. The goal was to identify potentially high risk areas for an outbreak of HIV or HCV, as well as where future resources for treatment and prevention of HIV or HCV should be placed in Minnesota.

We identified currently available data sources that could provide insight into counties at greater risk of an outbreak. The results of our analyses validated current knowledge of locations throughout Minnesota with a greater number of drug poisoning hospitalizations and cases of HIV or HCV. However, the findings also highlighted areas of the state with greater numbers of poisoning hospitalizations, but fewer cases of HIV or HCV. These areas may be at greater risk of an infectious disease outbreak, and it may be beneficial to target them with prevention measures, such as disease screening, referral to care, and syringe exchange programs.

At about the same time I completed our analysis, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a similar analysis titled, “County-level Vulnerability to Rapid Dissemination of HIV/HCV Infection among Persons who Inject Drugs.” The goals of the CDC analysis were similar to ours, except the CDC analyzed data for all counties in the United States and used a more sophisticated statistical method. The CDC report only published results for the highest risk counties in the United States, of which there were no Minnesota counties. However, the methods of the CDC analysis were replicated at the MDH with Minnesota county data to compare the MDH method and the CDC method. The two methods ultimately identified a similar group of counties in Minnesota that were found to be at higher potential risk for an outbreak of disease. The methods and data used in the statistical model continue to be refined to more accurately represent the population and risk factors in Minnesota to ensure it provides the most accurate picture of risk across the state. We’ve presented the results of this project at state and national conferences, and they will continue guide our thinking at the MDH as to how to address and prevent drug poisoning hospitalizations and HIV or HCV infection from occurring. There’s also potential for these results to help inform state policymakers as they seek legislative solutions to substance abuse.



CSTE Applied Epidemiology Fellow Nate Wright presents his work before administration officials at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

This project was particularly interesting because it brought together units of the MDH that often don’t have an opportunity to collaborate. Each unit brought their area of expertise to the table to work together to address this problem. For me, this project brought home the point that we as public health practitioners can accomplish more by working with each other and across our units. Bringing together colleagues with different perspectives on complex public health challenges helps push public health forward and improve the health of Minnesotans and our communities.

These project examples highlight a few of the tangible accomplishments of my AEF, but I have also grown personally and professionally as a result of these experiences. I strive to fully understand the data, including their strengths and limitations, and potential policy implications of findings. I’ve been reminded through meetings with those in my community that ultimately there are people behind the numbers—the data are representative of the true public health challenges facing people in the community that we are working to address.

The AEF has afforded me opportunities that few other recent graduates and new employees experience. My mentors have been wonderful and have provided the guidance and expertise to ensure my fellowship has been an extraordinary time as part of the Injury and Violence Prevention Section. As I reflect back on the first year of my fellowship, I begin to understand the wonderful experiences this fellowship has offered and I look forward to the work and opportunities that are still to come in my fellowship and beyond.


 
Nate Wright is a CSTE Applied Epidemiology Fellow in the Minnesota Department of Health. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota School of Public Health where he received his Masters of Public Health in Epidemiology. Mr. Wright’s post is the first in a series of blogs by CSTE Applied Epidemiology Fellows to be posted in the coming weeks.
 

Tags:  data  epidemiology  Fellowship  Substance Abuse  Surveillance  Workforce development 

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