A new mathematical modeling study relied on the patterns governing the spread of malaria through mosquitoes to inform researchers about optimal ways to combat the transmission of hepatitis C virus (HCV) through the sharing of used drug needles in the context of the opioid epidemic.

Publishing their findings in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, a research team lead by Brandon Ogbunu, an assistant professor in Brown University’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, fed into its mathematical model a number of parameters impacting the hep C epidemic. These included the number of people newly adopting injection drug use, the proportion of people who inject drugs (PWID) entering treatment for substance use disorder, the number of new needles used per day and how both HCV-infected and uninfected needles are discarded.

The study authors adjusted these parameters to see how such shifts altered projected outcomes. They found that removing used needles from circulation doesn’t actually slow the HCV transmission rate in the population. However, replacing infected needles with new, sterile ones or otherwise reducing the ratio of infected to uninfected needles would reduce new cases of hep C, according to the mathematical model.

This finding, the study authors concluded, suggests that adding screening for HCV and other blood-borne infections to syringe services programs would help reduce new infections. The mathematical model also stresses the value of safe consumption spaces.

“Mathematical models like this give us new perspectives on complicated phenomena, like the spread of hepatitis C virus in the community of people who inject drugs,” said Ogbunu. “It gives us a picture of the different knobs and levers that determine this phenomenon. Looking at needles like mosquitoes can give us a different lens on interventions and prevention measures.”

According to Ogbunu, harm reduction agencies and policymakers need to strategize improved methods to deliver harm reduction to rural areas where the opioid epidemic is particularly severe.

The researcher also highlighted how his mathematical model is an example of the kind of creative thinking that can produce new ideas for combating the spread of HCV, such as through the engineering of drug needles that cannot harbor viruses. The analogy in that case is the genetic engineering of mosquitoes that cannot carry malaria.

To read a press release about the study, click here.

To read the study, click here.