Heroin epidemic pushing up hepatitis C infections in US

Increases were most notable in West Virginia and rural counties in Tennessee, areas hard-hit by the heroin and prescription painkiller epidemic, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported. Just as the opioid crisis is showing no signs of slowing down, Kenney Miller of the Health Equity Alliance says the rate of hepatitis C infections continue unabated.

While there are medications that can resolve hepatitis C infections, they are not approved for pregnant women or children at this point. There were 34,000 new infections in 2015, the agency estimated.

A new report from the Vanderbilt University Medical Center finds a startling rise in the number of newborn babies at risk for Hepatitis C.

The number of births where a hepatitis C infection was present in the mother at the time of delivery rose 89 percent between 2009 and 2014, from 1.8 to 3.4 per 1,000 live births, according to a study by researchers at Vanderbilt University published Thursday by the CDC.

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"While this study focuses on pregnant women and a high-risk area in Tennessee, it is also important to remember that hundreds of thousands of people throughout the US have hepatitis C, and a large percentage of them do not know it", says Tim Jones, M.D., epidemiologist with the Tennessee Department of Health, in the statement.

Three-quarters of the 3.5 million Americans living with hepatitis C were born from 1945 to 1965.

Access to clean syringes and a limit on Medicaid barriers to curative treatments for hepatitis C can reduce rates of death from the disease and transmission of the virus to others, the CDC said.

The CDC also released national hepatitis C death figures: almost 20,000 deaths in 2015.

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Comprehensive approaches are needed to combat the dual epidemics of opioid addiction and injection-related infectious diseases. Only three of them pursue policies to prevent and treat the disease, such as needle sharing programs and rules allowing medical treatment even after a failed drug test.

And the CDC advocates using needle exchange programs to prevent infection. For these reasons, many patients decided not to take them. One study indicates that 80 percent of young people with hepatitis C live more than 10 miles from an SSP.

"I really think we're only beginning to see the burden of this issue as far as hepatitis C is concerned, mostly because it occurs on something of a time lag", he says.

Symptoms of the disease can range massively from case to case, with some of those infected with hepatitis C experiencing only a mild illness lasting a few weeks to others suffering from a chronic sickness that lasts a lifetime. May 19 is National Hepatitis Testing Day.

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"Injection drug use is the primary risk factor for new HCV infections", the researchers write, referring to the disease by its initials and recommending that lawmakers "create and strengthen public health laws" to fight the disease. "Now we need a substantial, focused, and concerted national effort to implement the National Viral Hepatitis Action Plan and make effective prevention tools and curative treatment available to Americans in need".

(Copyright © 2015. All Rights Reserved.)
 
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