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Opioid epidemic gives rise to Hepatitis C infections

Ben Schmitt
| Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017, 5:36 p.m.
Syringes
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
Syringes
Syringes
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
Syringes

A large number of opioid addicts are also inadvertently injecting themselves with the Hepatitis C virus, according to research published Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Researchers found a 133 percent increase across the country in acute Hepatitis C in conjunction with a 93 percent rise in substance abuse center admissions for opioid injection from 2004 to 2014.

The analysis was published Thursday in the American Journal of Public Health.

“Hepatitis C is a deadly, common and often invisible result of America's opioid crisis,” said Dr. Jonathan Mermin, director of the CDC's National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention. “By testing people who inject drugs for hepatitis C infection, treating those who test positive, and preventing new transmissions, we can mitigate some of the effects of the nation's devastating opioid crisis and save lives.”

The study examined data from CDC's hepatitis surveillance system and from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's (SAMHSA) national database that tracks admissions to substance use disorder treatment facilities throughout the country.

Hepatitis C virus spreads through infected blood or tissue an can lead to inflammation of the liver and liver cancer. Hepatitis C is the leading cause of cirrhosis and liver cancer and the most common reason for liver transplantation in the U.S., according to the CDC.

The results show among 18- to 29-year-olds, there was a:

• 400 percent increase in acute hepatitis C

• 817 percent increase in admissions for injection of prescription opioids

• 600 percent increase in admissions for heroin injection

Among 30- to 39-year-olds, there was a:

• 325 percent increase in acute hepatitis C

• 169 percent increase in admissions for injection of prescription opioids

• 77 percent increase in admissions for heroin injection

Dr. Amesh Adalja, a Pittsburgh-based infectious disease expert for the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said the new research underscores the need for legalized needle exchange programs.

“Significantly increased rates of infection in age cohorts in which injection drug use is prevalent have changed the epidemiology of this infection from one that impacted baby boomers to one that is plaguing younger populations,” Adalja said.

Many infected people are unaware of their infection until serious liver problems or other health complications arise.

“We have the incredible opportunity to stop new infections and prevent people from dying of hepatitis C,” said Dr. John Ward, director of CDC's Division of Viral Hepatitis. “With the right treatment and prevention efforts, we can eliminate hepatitis C as a public health threat within our lifetime – but to do so we must stop new infections at the source.”

Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991, bschmitt@tribweb.com or via Twitter at @Bencschmitt.

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