Heroin Use and Hepatitis
The heroin epidemic in the United States has some nasty side effects beyond overdose rates. Because of increasing rates of heroin use, hepatitis C is currently spreading across the United States at a break-neck pace.
IV heroin use is one of the ways hepatitis C spreads. According to the CDC, hepatitis C rates have risen every single year since 2010. The CDC found that these increases correlate to increased rates of IV heroin use. Since hep C is a chronic, dangerous illness, we may be dealing with the effects of this increase for years to come- unless we act now.
What is Hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C, or HCV, is a viral infection that attacks the liver. It’s important to know that:
- You can have hep C without showing any symptoms.
- It leads to fibrosis scar tissue and cirrhosis of the liver.
- Some cases of hep C can cause liver cancer.
- It can be acute (six months) or chronic (years), and most cases are chronic.
- Hep C is transmitted through blood.
There are several forms of hepatitis. Contaminated food and water spread Hep A, and infected bodily fluids spread Hep B. Hep A and B have vaccines, but Hep C does not.
For a more in-depth review, hepatitis C and various treatments are explored here.
How is Hep C Linked to the Heroin Epidemic?
How bad is HCV in America? Is it linked to the heroin epidemic?
Here’s a snapshot of the problem. Data from the CDC and the NIH shows that:
- For ten years, hepatitis C and heroin use rates increased every year. The most recent data from 2018 shows no signs of this trend slowing.
- Over 2 million Americans currently have hepatitis C.
- IV heroin users with hepatitis C infect an average of 20 people through sharing needles.
Heroin use is not the only cause of hepatitis C transmission, but it is undoubtedly linked. Hepatitis outbreaks have shown up in several states with high rates of IV heroin use.
States Hit by the Opiate Addiction
What does the hepatitis C crisis look like from the ground? Several states are dealing with severe impacts. More than half of the infections are in just nine states. Additionally, the states with the highest rates of hepatitis C also have high rates of opioid use. The national average of HCV infection is about .7 per 100,000 people. In some states, it’s ten times that rate. Because rates of hepatitis C impact states with high rates of heroin use, we have to address the root cause of drug addiction.
What Can We Do?
How do we slow down the rate of hepatitis infections? It’s a multi-pronged approach. For example, medications like Harvoni and Sovaldi can effectively treat the infection. Furthermore, some of these medications have a 90 percent success rate.
Cost is a downside to these medications, which routinely cost upwards of $100,000 for a full course. Because of this cost, insurance companies are hesitant to approve medicines for “high-risk” patients who might still be using drugs.
Harm reduction is another option. Generally, this method reduces the impacts of drug use by providing healthcare, clean syringes, and other opportunities for drug users. Despite offering some significant benefits- clean needles can eliminate the possibility of transmitting HCV- this approach is controversial.
Regardless of where you stand on harm reduction, the approach can reduce the spread of HCV and other blood-borne diseases. Substance abuse treatment may be the best measure for addressing the root problem of drug addiction, but harm reduction may “bridge the gap” for people who are unwilling or unable to stop. So, harm reduction? Medication? Drug Rehab? A combination? Check out our social media pages and let us know your thoughts on the best approach!