Heroin epidemic pushing up hepatitis C infections in US

The health department takes the position that syringe exchanges and drug treatment programs help curb the spread of hepatitis.

The number of new hep C virus infections reported to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention almost tripled from 2010 to 2015, marking a 15-year high. Last year, the agency reported a record number of fatalities from the virus occurred in 2014.

“By testing, curing, and preventing hepatitis C, we can protect generations of Americans from needless suffering and death”, said Jonathan Mermin, M.D., director of CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention.

The disease might have infected thousands of county residents who use heroin and other injectable drugs, according to the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department.

“Some of this increase can be explained by people actually looking for hepatitis C in pregnant women, which honestly, I don’t think was happening before”, maternal-fetal medicine specialist Marjory Meyer of the University of Vermont Medical Center told BuzzFeed News.

In 2015, the CDC recorded about 2,436 new cases of Hepatitis C infections. In addition, people who are pricked with discarded, contaminated needles or emergency responders who are poked can get the disease. The study also examined whether states had permissive or strict sobriety requirements to get costly Hepatitis C treatment under Medicaid.

CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report showed that the use of heroin and other injection drugs played a significant role in the recent increase in Hepatitis C cases. However, deaths associated with HCV were largely underestimated, according to the agency; the only large US study of deaths among persons with confirmed HCV infection indicated that only 19% had HCV listed on the death certificates despite 75% having evidence of substantial liver disease.

The surge of hepatitis C cases appears to be driven by the nationwide heroin epidemic, and the most common way the virus spreads is by shared or dirty needles used to inject opioids like heroin, the CDC said in the report issued Thursday.

People with hepatitis C often have no symptoms, so they are unaware of their infection.

“Even though certain states may have the most comprehensive policies providing access to [syringe service programs], they still may experience steep increases in cases”, said Ward, adding that some states changed their policies only recently to address increasing rates.

“The worry is that with our current system [patients] don’t know they’re infected and our systems that follow infants are pretty poor”, he said. “West Virginia had the highest prevalence of infection among pregnant women -; 1 in 50 newborns were exposed to the virus”. Of those, 25 patients had injected drugs.

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