Heroin epidemic pushing up hepatitis C infections in US

Ellen Mills
May 13, 2017

The number of new hepatitis C virus (HCV) infections reported to CDC has nearly tripled over 5 years, reaching the highest number in 15 years, preliminary surveillance data show.

A new report is startling and shows a rise in the number of newborn babies at risk for Hepatitis C. That's because infections among pregnant women have almost doubled since 2009.

Hepatitis C incidences have jumped by as much as 300% from 2010 to 2015.

The hepatitis C virus spreads through the blood but does most of its damage by infecting the liver.

If left untreated, the disease may scar the liver (cirrhosis), and eventually cause liver cancer and then liver failure.

Tennessee Department of Health Epidemiologist Tim Jones, M.D., mentioned that the study is a good reminder of the growing epidemic of hepatitis C in high-risk populations across the country.

"We suspect it is linked to the ongoing opioid epidemic in the USA", said Patrick, explaining his team previously found a 5-fold increase in infants having opioid withdrawal after birth with newborn opioid withdrawal occurring at higher rates in rural areas.

The rise of hepatitis C is linked to injection drug use.

West Virginia, which has been ravaged by opioids, had the highest rate at 22.6 per live births.

And despite the existence of therapies that can cure more than 90 percent of infections, the organization says the disease remains a deadly threat. "We need to continue to improve access to testing and treatment for hepatitis C", Saddler said.

The report shows numbers of patients infected tripled from 2010 to 2015.

The report - released Thursday for Hepatitis Awareness Month, which is this month, and ahead of National Hepatitis Testing Day on Friday, May 19 - also looked at whether states allowed the retail sale of syringes without a prescription to addicts who inject drugs.

The report found that hepatitis C infections in women at the time of childbirth increased 89 percent, from 1.8 to 3.4 instances per 1,000 live births from 2009 to 2014.

Patrick agreed, noting that women who know they have the virus before pregnancy can be treated to hopefully clear the virus prior to becoming pregnant.

It's a problem experts describe as a "dual epidemic" because it's directly tied to opioids such as heroin.

He also said that it is increasingly important that infants exposed to hepatitis C are monitored to see if they get the virus. 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.

Of the 3.5 million Americans living with hepatitis, most were born between 1945 and 1965 and were infected decades ago, according to the CDC. Gee says she been forced to cut most mental health treatment services in the Medicaid program.

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