Rates of Hepatitis C infection have nearly tripled in the past five years, according to a new study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Officials say the rise was largely driven by an increase in the use of injection drugs such as heroin.
Hepatitis C attacks the liver, and it is highly contagious through blood contact. According to the CDC, sharing needles, syringes or other devices used to inject drugs is the most common way the hepatitis C virus is spread in the United States. Hepatitis C can range from a short illness to a lifelong disease.
The CDC report found that acute hepatitis C infections increased by more than 2.9 times over the five years between 2010 and 2015, rising consistently year over year.
About 30,500 cases of hepatitis C occurred in the United States in 2014, according to CDC estimates. If detected early, an acute hepatitis C infection can be cured before it develops into a chronic condition that causes serious damage to the liver. Up to 85 percent of those infected with the disease will develop chronic hepatitis C.
Two main groups are affected most by the rise: young people and pregnant women.
“Most [newly acquired hepatitis C infections] occur among young, white persons who live in nonurban areas (particularly states within the Appalachian, Midwestern and New England regions of the country),” the report stated. The CDC added that these areas have been particularly affected by the growing opioid epidemic.
Fifteen states that experienced significant increases in rates of drug overdose deaths between 2014 and 2015 belong at least in part to the three regions identified by the CDC. Opioids, including heroin, were involved in more than 33,000 deaths in 2015, and opioid overdoses have quadrupled since 1999.
The CDC reported that hepatitis C infections doubled among pregnant women over the five-year period. Hepatitis C can be passed from a mother to her child during pregnancy. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, there is a one in 25 chance that the child will be infected with hepatitis C if the mother is infected.
Parents can test children for the disease eight to 12 weeks after birth. Children who are infected may not show symptoms, but tests can detect abnormal liver enzymes indicative of the disease.
The CDC advocated for two avenues for hepatitis C prevention, including safe-injection sites and state- and city-sponsored needle exchange programs. Ensuring that individuals addicted to injectable drugs can access clean needles and safely use them is one step to prevent hepatitis C and other intravenously contracted diseases such as HIV/AIDS.
Communities can introduce comprehensive syringe service programs to curtail the spread of hepatitis C and other diseases, according to the report.
“These programs also help link people to treatments to stop drug use, testing for infectious diseases that can be spread to others and medical care,” the CDC stated.
Eighteen states have laws against needle exchanges. Many conservative lawmakers believe that providing needle-exchange programs and safe injection sites promotes drug use.
Only three states cited in the study, Massachusetts, New Mexico and Washington, have laws that help individuals addicted to injectable drugs enroll in needle exchange programs and access hepatitis treatment and preventive services.
Hepatitis C can be cured with medication, but the treatments are expensive and not widely used. Some people may not have insurance, which makes it difficult to afford a regimen of Sovaldi, which costs about $84,000, or Harvoni, which can cost more than $94,000.
“By testing, curing and preventing hepatitis C, we can protect generations of Americans from needless suffering and death,” Jonathan Mermin, director of the National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention, said.