Heroin Epidemic Causing Dramatic Rise in Cases of Hepatitis C, CDC Warns

Within the past few years, new hepatitis C cases have dramatically increased around the country, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports. This May, the number of new hepatitis C cases hit a 15-year high.


Sadly, this sudden increase can be explained in a single word: heroin.


The nationwide opioid crisis is at an all time high, and intravenous drug users who share needles are extremely vulnerable to blood-borne diseases like hepatitis C and HIV/AIDS. As a result, new hepatitis C cases have soared along with heroin addiction. 


According to the CDC, the nationwide average of hepatitis C was 0.8 per 100,000 people in 2015. That same year, 17 states reported larger numbers of hepatitis patients compared to the national average, with some states even experiencing a 300% jump in the number of new infections.


Even worse, the CDC believes that one in two hepatitis C patients doesn't even know they have the disease, which means the number of new cases is actually much higher than reported. And because some states require proof of sobriety to receive assistance, many patients who see a doctor cannot access the treatments they need. In a new report, CDC officials point to multiple restrictions that cause opioid users to suffer without the possibility of treatment.


"We must reach the hardest-hit communities with a range of prevention and treatment services that can diagnose people with hepatitis C and link them to treatment. This wide range of services can also prevent the misuse of prescription drugs and ultimately stop drug use -- which can also prevent others from getting hepatitis C in the first place," said Dr. Jonathan Mermin, the Director of the CDC's National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention, in a recent news release.


As a part of their new report, the CDC reviewed state laws that restrict access to clean needles, as well as the amount of Medicaid assistance available to people with substance abuse problems. Because there is a direct correlation between hepatitis C and opioid use, the CDC made two key recommendations. First, the agency recommends that state officials make clean syringes available at all times. Second, they recommend loosening Medicaid restrictions that restrict access to healthcare if a person has a history of drug use.


Although there is a heavy stigma against addiction, especially when it comes to heroin, most heroin users started by abusing common prescription painkillers. In fact, four out of five heroin users say they started by using prescription painkillers.


Considering that in 2012 U.S. doctors wrote 259 million prescriptions for opioid painkillers, and that 48.5% of Americans have taken a prescription drug in the past 30 days, the CDC warns that it is quite easy to become addicted to legal prescription opioids.


As reported on Frontline, the heroin epidemic has affected almost every demographic. Between 2010 and 2014, white opioid users experienced a 267% increase in fatalities from heroin overdoses, Native Americans saw a 236% increase in deaths, African Americans saw a 213% rise in drug overdose deaths, and Hispanics suffered a 137% rise. 


For now, the nationwide opioid and heroin epidemic shows no signs of slowing, which means affordable access to hepatitis C treatments are more important than ever.

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