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U.S. Hepatitis C Infections Concentrated In States Where Opioid Epidemic Rages: Study

The findings of a new study suggest that new cases of hepatitis C are clustering in areas of the U.S. that have been hardest hit by the opioid crisis, indicating that the disease may be spreading through the use of contaminated needles linked to drug abuse. 

Researchers with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicate that a correlation has been identified between states with the highest prevalence of hepatitis C virus and areas where the opioid epidemic has struck the hardest. The findings were published on December 21 in the medical journal JAMA Network Open.

The survey study was part of an effort to estimate the prevalence of current hepatitis C infections in each state from 2013 to 2016. Researchers used data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), as well as data on narcotic overdose mortality in all National Vital Statistics death records from 1999 to 2016.

Overall, the national prevalence of hepatitis C was 0.84% of the population, indicating that a little more than two million Americans had the infection. The researchers found that nine states accounted for 51.9% of all persons in the U.S. with hepatitis C. Those states include California, Texas, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Tennessee, and North Carolina.

Researchers noted that the concentration of hepatitis C in Appalachia and in the West corresponds with some of the highest hotspots in the opioid crisis. They said the numbers likely reflect increases in injection drug use in those regions, as well as chronic infection problems.

“Highest rates are frequently in states deeply affected by the opioid crisis or with a history of increased levels of injection drug use and chronic HCV infection, particularly in the West,” the researchers determined. “Progress toward hepatitis C elimination is theoretically possible with the right investments in prevention, diagnosis, and cure.”

According to the CDC, more than 70,000 people died from drug overdose deaths in the U.S. in 2017. That rate is nearly 10% higher than 2016 and the highest increase in the U.S. for a single year. Comparatively, the number of drug overdose deaths in 1999 reached 17,000.

The rate of drug overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids, like fentanyl, increased by 45%. West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Washington D.C. were the hardest hit and had the highest drug overdose death rates in 2017.

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