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Increasing Heroin Use Fuels Hepatitis C

Hepatitis C, an illness we haven’t heard a lot about for a while, is making its way back into the news. This life-threatening and contagious viral infection is transmitted though contact with infected blood. Because they often share needles, intravenous drug users are at particularly high risk for hepatitis C. Intravenous drug use, heroin especially, is on the rise. Consequently, more people are being exposed to hepatitis C.

In the United States, hepatitis C contributes to 12,000 deaths annually and 17,000 new cases of the illness are diagnosed each year. Hepatitis C can lead to cirrhosis of the liver, liver cancer and liver failure. In both the U.S. and Canada, hepatitis C is the leading cause of liver transplants.

These figures may be just the tip of the iceberg, as someone can be infected with hepatitis C for years without any obvious symptoms. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other major health organizations, hepatitis C is currently destroying the health of more than four million Americans, most of whom haven’t a clue that they are sick and unknowingly passing the virus to others.

The majority of the infected are members of the baby boomer generation who acquired the virus decades ago. This has led the CDC to recommend that everyone born between 1945 and 1965 be tested for hepatitis C.

Meanwhile, the circle of who has been exposed to hepatitis C is not only expanding, but also getting younger. Almost one fourth of 18 to 25 year olds report that they misuse prescription opioids. Subsequently, some of these young adults have become addicted and transitioned to heroin.

Opioid medications including OxyContin, Vicodin, Demerol and their generic versions that are commonly prescribed to treat pain are highly addicting. Their misuse and abuse has led to increasing numbers of overdose deaths and changes in how they are prescribed. Doctors do not write scripts for as many pills or with automatic refills as they once did. This in turn has led some people to buy these pills illegally and also to turn to heroin because it is cheaper and more available.

A combination of antiviral drugs can sometimes cure hepatitis C. These medications can run thousands of dollars and unless the person is acutely ill, some health insurers will not cover their cost. Even if these antiviral drugs are used, a number of factors including degree of liver damage and genetic background can influence their effectiveness. For example, hepatitis C treatment has been less successful for African Americans than for Caucasians. The infection also seems to advance more rapidly in people who are of Latino descent.

There is no vaccine for hepatitis C. However, you can take steps to protect yourself. As with any medication, always follow your doctor’s orders when you are prescribed an opioid. Doing so reduces your risk of becoming addicted and engaging in behaviors including intravenous drug use that increase your chances of being exposed to hepatitis C.

Also, get tested. You can find out privately if you have ever been exposed by purchasing a home test kit that is available at most drug stores. A positive result does not necessarily mean you are currently infected, but should be discussed with your health care provider to determine if additional testing is needed. Remember that most people who have hepatitis C don’t know it. If you have this illness, the longer it goes untreated, the more likely you are to develop life-threatening liver complications and the more likely you are to pass it along to others.

Workplace substance abuse programs can help protect employers and employees from the consequences of alcohol abuse, illegal drugs and the misuse of prescription pain relievers. These include addiction and increased risk for hepatitis C.

The LHSFNA’s Health Promotion Division can help develop workplace substance abuse programs tailored to the unique needs and challenges of specific workplaces. For more information, call 202-628-5465.

Pamphlets, booklets and program materials about various aspects of substance abuse and drug-free workplace programs developed by the Fund’s expert staff can be ordered by clicking on Publications.

[Janet Lubman Rathner]

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