Reports indicate the hepatitis C virus has expanded rapidly over the last few years, and experts say it could very well be a result of the startling opioid epidemic.
Over 2,400 hep C infections were reported in 2015 alone, but researchers state the actual number of those infected with the virus could be as high as 34,000. According to statistics, the highest rates of viral infection have occurred among those in their 20s who reportedly use needles to inject illegal drugs into their bloodstream.
Currently, around 3.5 million U.S. citizens have some sort of hepatitis C infection. The virus, which damages the liver, carries with it a host of serious side effects including fever, loss of appetite, vomiting, and jaundice. In 2014, the deadly illness killed almost 20,000 people – a record that health care experts hope won’t ever be topped.
Officials indicate that areas with the highest concentration of new infections so far include the Appalachia regions, the Midwest, and the New England areas. In fact, CNN reports that seven states out of those regions have reported at least twice as many cases of the infection than the national average. These areas of the country seem to line up with the CDC’s observation that rural and suburban regions have experienced the largest increase in infections.
“Recent CDC research has identified increasing injection drug use – tied to the U.S. opioid epidemic – in rural and suburban areas across the country.”
According to John Ward, the director of the CDC’s viral hepatitis division, most of these new infections may come from competition in the illegal drug market. There has been a sharp drop in the price of instruments used to inject opioids like heroin, and as many users switch from taking prescription pills to using needles to inject the substance into their bodies, the amount of hepatitis C cases continues to rise.
“These new infections are most frequently among people who transition from taking prescription pills to injecting heroin, which has become cheaper and more easily available in some cases. In turn, many – most, in some communities – people who inject drugs become infected with hepatitis C.”
Reports indicate the hepatitis C virus has been passed from person to person through the use of shared needles since as far back as the 1990s- though Ward indicates that the virus can also be transmitted through sexual contact or during pregnancy. These instances, however, are relatively rare.
As of yet, there is no marketable vaccine for hepatitis C, so experts indicate the best way to prevent the illness is to stay away from risky behaviors that can spread it- like sharing needles.
Ward and his team of researchers also suggest that states can slow down the spread of the deadly illness by enforcing policies that would give IV drug users access to services used to treat the virus. In a study, Ward’s team pinpointed three specific states that have the capacity to improve such access almost immediately. Ironically, these three states (Massachusetts, New Mexico, and Washington) are all ranked among the highest regions of concentrated hepatitis C infections.
While Ward indicates that many states don’t see the new outbreak of hepatitis C as potentially devastating, he claims that the startling amount of infections that have been transmitted from pregnant mothers to unborn children should be enough to raise alarm everywhere.
“The rise in hepatitis C among women of reproductive age and pregnant women parallels this opioid epidemic. And as hepatitis C has increased among young women, the newest generation of Americans are now at risk.”
Experts and analysts alike say the only hope of drastically crippling the spread of the infection is to nip the illegal use of shared needles in the bud. In order to do this, however, organizations like the CDC desperately need full state support.
[Featured Image by Tim Whitby/Stringer/Getty Images]