O'Neill Institute | June 22, 2018
The majority of new cases of hepatitis C infections are being seen among people who inject drugs (PWID).
The opioid epidemic in the U.S. is a current public health crisis that stems from high rates of prescribing and misuse of prescription opioid drugs. Opioid drugs, such as oxycodone (e.g. Percocet) or hydrocodone (e.g. Vicodin), are prescribed as painkillers, and have seen a sharp increase in the rate of prescriptions written in the past two decades. Opioid medications, even those prescribed by a doctor for legitimate medical needs, are highly addictive, and can lead to abuse if not used as directed. When those who become addicted to prescription painkillers can no longer get access to the pills, many turn to heroin, which is cheaper and often easier to acquire on the illegal drug market than opioid pills. Heroin is a drug that is usually injected directly into the bloodstream, and this manner of dosing exposes users to bloodborne pathogens, such as HIV and HCV, through the sharing of needles, syringes, or other instruments that have come into contact with the blood of others who are infected. This has led to a sharp increase in rates of both illnesses among people who inject drugs (PWID).
This population is also largely comprised of persons ages 18-39. While any rise in Hepatitis C rates is alarming, increased prevalence of the disease among younger Americans is of added concern.
Recent outbreaks of the illness in states like Indiana and Kentucky have raise the specter of the correlation between the increasing rates of injection drug use and infectious diseases such as Hepatitis C.
While baby boomers comprise the largest number of chronic HCV infections, 70% of new HCV infections are believed to occur among people who inject drugs.
The federal government has made the nation’s opioid epidemic a public health priority. Initiatives to address the epidemic must include efforts to combat the increase rates of infectious diseases that accompany injection drug use.