PolitiFact: Markey bases heroin claim on limited information

Democratic Sen. Edward J. Markey said that the Trump administration’s plan to use funds from HIV and AIDS programs to fight the opioid addiction crisis is unsound. Specifically, the Massachusetts senator said that increased opioid abuse has led to an increase in HIV and AIDS.

We found some truth to Markey’s claim but not enough national data to fully back it.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told us it does not have data specific to heroin and fentanyl, and it estimates that HIV and AIDs diagnoses have declined in recent years among people who inject drugs.

More than 64,000 people died in 2016 from drug overdoses, the majority linked to opioids, which include the synthetic opioid fentanyl and the illicit drug heroin, according to the CDC.

Increased availability, a relatively low price and the high purity of heroin are driving its increased use, the CDC said. Fentanyl use, including fentanyl made illicitly, has also increased in recent years.

Human immunodeficiency virus, HIV, is most commonly acquired or transmitted through sexual behaviors and needle or syringe use. If not treated, HIV can lead to AIDS.

The CDC's HIV Surveillance Report, 2015, noted that HIV and AIDS diagnoses tied to injection drug use declined from 2010 to 2015. It did not specify diagnoses by types of drugs injected.

From 2008 to 2014, estimated annual HIV infections among people who inject drugs declined 56 percent (from 3,900 to 1,700), according to February 2017 data from the CDC. That report did not include AIDS data.

Experts we reached said they were not aware of reports showing a national spike in HIV and AIDS among injection drug users, but noted that data collection and reporting tends to lag.

“It is very possible that increased HIV transmission due to fentanyl and/or heroin use is occurring” but has not yet been identified through HIV testing and screening or has not yet been reported to CDC, said Brandon Marshall, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Brown University School of Public Health.

When we contacted Markey’s office, staffers highlighted reports about HIV spikes in Scott County, Ind.

Scott County historically had fewer than five HIV cases reported annually, CDC reported. By April 21, 2015, Indiana officials had diagnosed HIV in 135 people in a small community in that county. Most of them reported injection drug use with oxymorphone, said CDC’s May 2015 report, adding that some reported injecting heroin.

Since early 2015, at least 191 people had tested positive for HIV in Scott County, the Indiana State Department of Health said in April 2016.

“The outbreak in Scott County turned a floodlight on the intertwined nature of opioid use, HIV, and (hepatitis C virus) … It’s possible that the opioid epidemic could already be having a similar impact in other communities,” said a June blog post by Richard Wolitski, director of the office of HIV/AIDS and Infectious Disease Policy at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

A CDC analysis published in November 2016 found at least 220 counties in 26 states are "potentially vulnerable" to HIV and hepatitis C infections among people who inject drugs "in the context of the national opioid epidemic."

Our ruling

There are risks for HIV transmission among people who share needles and syringes to inject opioids. An Indiana county recently had an HIV outbreak linked to the injection of opioids, including heroin. At least 220 U.S. counties may be at risk of similar outbreaks. But the CDC said it does not have national data addressing Markey’s heroin and fentanyl claim, and estimates that HIV and AIDs diagnoses have declined in recent years among people who inject drugs.

Markey's statement contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression. We rate it Mostly False.

Says HIV and AIDS rates have spiked “due to increased heroin and fentanyl use.”

— Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2017 in a statement