Preventing the transition to injection drug use is an important public health goal, as people who inject drugs (PWID) are at high risk for overdose and acquisition of infectious disease. Initiation into drug injection is primarily a social process, often involving PWID assistance. A better understanding of the epidemiology of this phenomenon would inform interventions to prevent injection initiation and to enhance safety when assistance is provided. We conducted a systematic review of the literature to 1) characterize the prevalence of receiving (among injection-naive persons) and providing (among PWID) help or guidance with the first drug injection and 2) identify correlates associated with these behaviors. Correlates were organized as substance use behaviors, health outcomes (e.g., human immunodeficiency virus infection), or factors describing an individual’s social, economic, policy, or physical environment, defined by means of Rhodes’ risk environments framework. After screening of 1,164 abstracts, 57 studies were included. The prevalence of receiving assistance with injection initiation (help or guidance at the first injection) ranged 74% to 100% (n = 13 estimates). The prevalence of ever providing assistance with injection initiation varied widely (range, 13%–69%; n = 13 estimates). Injecting norms, sex/gender, and other correlates classified within Rhodes’ social risk environment were commonly associated with providing and receiving assistance. Nearly all PWID receive guidance about injecting for the first time, whereas fewer PWID report providing assistance. Substantial clinical and statistical heterogeneity between studies precluded meta-analysis, and thus local-level estimates may be necessary to guide the implementation of future psychosocial and sociostructural interventions. Further, estimates of providing assistance may be downwardly biased because of social desirability factors.
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