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HUNTINGTON - Marshall University will become the latest higher education institution in the United States to utilize its academic and research resources to address substance abuse with the creation of a new position at its Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine.

Marshall President Jerome Gilbert was described in a news release from the university as being confident that Marshall could be a leader in helping abate the region's addiction crisis as he announced medical school officials would conduct a national search for a director and professor of addiction sciences.

Since he took office in January, Gilbert has emphasized the need for Marshall students, faculty and staff to engage in multi-disciplinary research projects to achieve well-rounded, productive results, and he said the new med school position will be key to linking medicine and pharmacy with the social, economic and psychological disciplines needed to address addiction.

"We have an incredible amount of talent and expertise here at Marshall already focused on the opioid crisis," Gilbert said in the news release. "This position will strengthen our ability to have a significant impact by working across disciplines to find holistic solutions to the addiction problem."

The new addiction sciences specialist will join Marshall University by summer 2017, according to the release.

If the university is able to stay on its projected schedule in hiring the specialist, that person would be hired just short of the one-year anniversary of a day when a batch of heroin believed to be laced with fentanyl led to 27 overdoses and possibly two deaths on Aug. 15 in Huntington.

The position will be funded through the med school, Marshall's School of Pharmacy, Cabell Huntington Hospital as well as sources outside of those entities, said Dr. Joseph Shapiro, dean of the School of Medicine.

Along with the new position comes a newly created Substance Abuse Coalition, which will be led by Dr. Kevin W. Yingling, dean of the pharmacy school; Amy Saunders, who leads the university's Student Health Education Programs; and Jim Johnson, director of the Huntington Mayor's Office of Drug Control Policy.

"We realize that addiction medicine will be an increasingly important component of medical education in the future," Shapiro said in the release. "Our goal will be to develop a comprehensive approach to dealing with addiction, including the development of an addiction medicine residency program."

The position will reside in the medical school, and there will be a close relationship and cooperation with addiction sciences initiatives in the School of Pharmacy, and qualified candidates for the job would have backgrounds in practicing family medicine, internal medicine and psychiatry who are working in addiction medicine, Shapiro said.

While the concept of addiction and recovery services as a practice and academic research area is fairly new, Marshall isn't the first higher education institution in the country to dedicate resources to the practice, Shapiro said.

The University of Cincinnati's UC Health is home to an addiction services program, and Texas Tech University offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in community, family, and addiction sciences as well as a minor in addictive disorders and recovery studies.

"There are such specialists across the country, albeit they are a minority," Shapiro said. "The field continues to develop with residency programs and board certifications being discussed."

Data from the Centers for Disease Control shows West Virginia had the highest rate of drug overdose death in the country in 2014, which is the most recent data available.

Yingling said Huntington's statistics especially made it a prime location for academic and medical experts to work to subdue substance abuse.

"The opportunity to have an impact in our community is significant because of the higher-than-normal incidence of addiction of our population," Yingling said. "There is tremendous synergy among all partners in Huntington as we work together to reduce this epidemic."

Gilbert commented that Huntington has already made tremendous strides by implementing a drug court, establishing Lily's Place for the care of addicted newborns and developing a harm reduction program as an important community service in the addiction/abuse battle.

In August, the CDC reported instances of neonatal abstinence syndrome increased more than 300 percent between 2000 and 2012 in the United States. Of the 27 states with proper data, West Virginia had the highest rate of NAS babies, with 33.4 cases per 1,000 hospital births. The national average was 6 per 1,000.

Shapiro said that because of the rate of addiction in the region, Marshall physicians are more experienced than any in the world in dealing with both infant and adult addiction.

"We want to build our capacity with this position and share our knowledge in treating addiction," he added. "Ultimately, our goal is to have our patients recover and return to being valued members of our society."

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