Why Are Hep C Infections Skyrocketing? Opioid Abuse to Blame

A spike in hepatitis C infections is directly tied to the rise in opioid addiction, putting vulnerable people at a high risk of contracting the deadly virus.

7:00 AM

Author | Rene Wisely

The opioid epidemic claims 91 American lives each day, particularly young adults.

MORE FROM MICHIGAN: Sign up for our weekly newsletter

It also has catapulted a form of liver disease back into the spotlight: New hepatitis C cases have nearly tripled between 2010 and 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The growing use of opioids, a class of drugs used to reduce pain, is to blame. These drugs include prescription medicines such as OxyContin, Vicodin, morphine and fentanyl, as well as the illegal form of it, heroin.

People who use them, the CDC found, are most at risk of an acute hepatitis C infection.

"We see at least one or two patients a month coming into our hospital with an acute hepatitis C infection, and they are frequently young people who are using and experimenting with illicit drugs," says liver specialist Robert Fontana, M.D., a professor of medicine and the medical director of Michigan Medicine's liver transplantation program.

Hep C and drug use: A deadly problem

Hepatitis C is a liver-damaging virus that, without treatment, can lead to liver failure and liver cancer. It's currently the deadliest infectious disease in the United States, killing 20,000 people in 2015.

It spreads when people share blood, including swapping infected needles or other paraphernalia to inject drugs like heroin, during sex and through childbirth.

Although there is no preventive vaccine, physician-researchers have found a medicinal cure that is effective in up to 95 percent of hepatitis C cases. With these effective but expensive antiviral medications, doctors thought they were closer to eradicating a virus that affects 3 to 4 million Americans.

But the opioid epidemic has reversed much of that progress, and hepatitis C infections have increased.

"We have great cures for it, but the reservoir is increasing again and that's not good," Fontana says.

Awareness and action

Ironically, patients with immediate symptoms may be the lucky ones, Fontana suggests.

SEE ALSO: What Is Hepatitis? Common Types and Treatments Demystified

Because hepatitis C is often asymptomatic, people might have it for decades until another health problem prompts a blood screening test. But liver damage and cirrhosis may have set in by this point.

Tackling the problem, then, requires both pre-emptive and reactive measures.

"If we get newly infected patients in early, we can work on the substance use disorders that caused this serious liver disease in the first place," Fontana says.

"More importantly, we want to get the word out about the hazards of illicit drug use including overdoses and acquisition of infections like hepatitis C, hepatitis B and HIV — which can lead to a multitude of health problems."

To make an appointment with Michigan Medicine's liver clinic, dial 844-233-0433.


More Articles About: Digestive Health Drug Abuse and Misuse Hepatitis Addiction and Mental Illness Pharmacy
Health Lab word mark overlaying blue cells
Health Lab

Explore a variety of healthcare news & stories by visiting the Health Lab home page for more articles.

Media Contact Public Relations

Department of Communication at Michigan Medicine

[email protected]

734-764-2220

Stay Informed

Want top health & research news weekly? Sign up for Health Lab’s newsletters today!

Subscribe
Featured News & Stories pills floating blue pink dark background physician in middle looking at chart white coat scrubs
Health Lab
Better medical record-keeping needed to fight antibiotic overuse, studies suggest
Efforts to reduce overuse of antibiotics may be hampered by incomplete medical records that don’t show the full reasons for prescriptions.
surgery gloves passing tool blue and yellow
Health Lab
A universal heparin reversal drug is shown effective in mice
The newest version of the heparin reversal drug, described in a recent issue of Advanced Healthcare Materials, adjusted the number of protons bound to it, making the molecule less positive so it would preferentially bind to the highly negative heparin, resulting in a much safer drug.
blue gloves in hospital hanging IV bag
Health Lab
Commonly used antibiotic brings more complications, death in the sickest patients
In emergency rooms and intensive care units across the country, clinicians make split-second decisions about which antibiotics to give a patient when a life threatening infection is suspected. Now, a study reveals that these decisions may have unintended consequences for patient outcomes.
woman holding face looking stressed on white couch in white shirt dark blue pants
Health Lab
Health costs top older adults’ list of concerns for people their age, poll finds
People over 50 of all backgrounds say they’re most concerned about various kinds of health costs affecting people their age, including insurance, prescriptions, medical care, dental care and home or longterm care.
Illustration of doctor pictured outside a pill bottle that houses a bent-over figure with pills lying on the ground
Health Lab
It’s easier now to treat opioid addiction with medication -- but use has changed little
Buprenorphine prescribing for opioid addiction used to require a special waiver from the federal government, but a new study shows what happened in the first year after that requirement was lifted.
Pill capsule pushing through a paper with amoxicillin printed on it.
Health Lab
Rise seen in use of antibiotics for conditions they can’t treat – including COVID-19
Overuse of antibiotics can lead bacteria to evolve antimicrobial resistance, but Americans are still receiving the drugs for many conditions that they can’t treat.