Endocarditis in patients with cocaine or opioid use disorder markedly increased between 2011 and 2022

Steep, recent increase indicates COVID-19 associated with higher risk of endocarditis, NIH-supported study finds

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The incidence rate of infective endocarditis – a rare but often fatal inflammation of the heart valves – among patients with cocaine use disorder or opioid use disorder increased from 2011 to 2022, with the steepest increase occurring from 2021 to 2022, a new study reports. Study findings contribute to expanding evidence of endocarditis as a significant and growing health concern for people who inject drugs, and further demonstrate that this risk has been exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Among patients with either substance use disorder, those who were clinically diagnosed with COVID-19 faced a higher risk of a new endocarditis diagnosis as well as hospitalization following this diagnosis than those without COVID-19. Over the full 12-year period, the rate of endocarditis was three to eight times greater in patients with opioid and cocaine use disorder than those without.

The findings also showed that Black and Hispanic people faced a lower risk of COVID-19-associated endocarditis than non-Hispanic white people. The authors note this is consistent with higher prevalence of injection drug use in non-Hispanic white populations, compared to black or Hispanic populations. The study published today in Molecular Psychiatry, funded by agencies across the National Institutes of Health and led by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

“People with substance use disorder already face major impediments to proper healthcare due to lack of access and stigma,” said NIDA Director and co-corresponding study author, Nora D. Volkow, M.D. “Proven techniques like syringe service programs, which help people avoid infection from re-used or shared injection equipment, can help prevent this often fatal and costly condition.”

One in 10 hospitalizations for endocarditis is associated with injection drug use, and these numbers continue to rise. Many drugs can be taken via injection, including cocaine, methamphetamine, and opioids such as heroin and fentanyl. Inadequate access to sterile injection equipment is common and dramatically increases risk of infection in people who use drugs. HIV and hepatitis can also be transmitted through re-use of injection equipment and pose health risks.

Dr. Volkow at NIDA and a team of scientists at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, analyzed electronic health record data of more than 109 million unique patients collected from January 2011 through August 2022. Patient data were derived from 77 hospitals nationwide across the entire United States, covering diverse geographic locations, age groups, racial and ethnic groups, income levels and insurance types. The electronic health records were de-identified to ensure privacy.

The researchers found that, in 2011, there were four cases of endocarditis per day for every 1 million people with opioid use disorder. In 2022, this rate increased to 30 cases per day per 1 million people with opioid use disorder. For people with cocaine use disorder, cases increased from five per 1 million people with cocaine use disorder in 2011 to 23 cases in 2022.

A clinical diagnosis of COVID-19 more than doubled the risk for new diagnosis of endocarditis in patients with either cocaine or opioid use disorder. Among these patients, the risk of hospitalization within 180 days following diagnosis of endocarditis was about 68% in patients with COVID-19, compared to 59% in those without. Moreover, the mortality risk within 180 days following new diagnosis of endocarditis was 9% in those with COVID-19, compared to 8% in patients without.

“As the scientific understanding of long COVID develops, we can now include endocarditis as one long-term effect on key organ systems for people who inject drugs. Our study is one of the first to show this,” said Rong Xu, Ph.D., professor of biomedical informatics at Case Western Reserve and co-corresponding author of this study. “It’s critical that we continue to monitor long term, broad impacts of COVID-19 on people who use drugs.”

For more information on substance and mental health treatment programs in your area, call the free and confidential National Helpline 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or visit www.FindTreatment.gov.

Reference: R Xu, et al. Association of COVID-19 with endocarditis in patients with cocaine or opioid use disorders in the US. Molecular Psychiatry. DOI: 10.1038/s41380-022-01903-1 (2022).

About substance use disorders: Substance use disorders are chronic, treatable conditions from which people can recover. In 2020, over 40 million people in the United States had at least one substance use disorder. Substance use disorders are defined in part by continued use of substances despite negative consequences. It is also a relapsing condition, in which periods of abstinence (not using substances) can be followed by a return to use. Stigma can make individuals with substance use disorders less likely to seek treatment. Using preferred language can help accurately report on substance use and addiction. View NIDA’s online guide.

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About the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA): NIDA is a component of the National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIDA supports most of the world’s research on the health aspects of drug use and addiction. The Institute carries out a large variety of programs to inform policy, improve practice, and advance addiction science. For more information about NIDA and its programs, visit www.nida.nih.gov.

About the National Institutes of Health (NIH): NIH, the nation’s medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit www.nih.gov.

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