CDC Warns of Rise in Hepatitis C Cases Linked to Injection-Drug Use
Reported Hep C cases in young people more than tripled from 2006 to 2012 in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia, CDC study finds
By Jeanne Whalen in the Wall Street Journal
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned about a sharp increase in hepatitis C infections linked to injection-drug abuse in four Appalachian states, and called for better health services to contain the spread.
Reported cases of acute hepatitis C infection in people ages 30 or under more than tripled from 2006 to 2012 in four states—Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia—according to a new study published by the CDC Thursday. Among patients for whom associated risk factors were reported, more than 70% reported injection-drug abuse.
During the same period, the number of people under 30 admitted to substance-abuse treatment facilities for opioid drugs grew by 21% in those states. A significant proportion of these people identified injection as their main method of drug use.
“Taken together, these increases indicate a geographic intersection among opioid abuse, drug injecting, and HCV infection in central Appalachia and underscore the need for integrated health services in substance-abuse treatment settings to prevent HCV infection and ensure that those who are infected receive medical care,” the researchers wrote in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
The study “provides a call to action,” John Ward, director of the CDC’s division of viral hepatitis, said in an interview. “We have a major problem with hepatitis C,” he said, noting that acute infection reports nationwide rose by 150% between 2010 and 2013.
The sharing of needles among drug users is one of the main ways the blood-borne hepatitis C virus spreads. Injection-drug abuse has soared in Appalachia and other rural areas in recent years amid what health experts call an epidemic of opioid painkiller and heroin addiction.
An outbreak of HIV among injection-drug users in rural Indiana in recent weeks has focused attention on the problem. Health experts say hepatitis C is even more widespread in such communities, as it spreads more easily. Infection can lead to cirrhosis or cancer of the liver and require costly transplants. New drugs are highly effective at curing infections but can cost more than $80,000 per person.
On the heels of the Indiana outbreak, the CDC in April called for all local health departments to take urgent action to prevent further HIV and hepatitis C outbreaks.
The CDC’s new hepatitis C study found that those infected were primarily non-Hispanic white people, with a significant number living in rural areas. The CDC cautioned that hepatitis C is often underreported, because infected people often have no symptoms, and because populations at risk often have limited access to health care.