Hepatitis C on rise statewide
Hepatitis C cases have increased almost everywhere, including Clay County and the cost to tax payers could be high.
“From 2010 until present we have recorded 33 cases of chronic Hepatitis C and two cases of acute Hepatitis C in Clay County,” Clay County Health Department Director Janice Patterson explained. The actual number may be higher since some cases may not have been reported.
“Testing for Hepatitis C is not routinely done and often goes under reported because there is not a required reporting of chronic Hepatitis C,” Patterson said. “In the next few months, the rules are changing to require reporting of chronic hepatitis C. This will be important to evaluate the needed health care services and medications to address this health problem.”
Patterson said the hepatitis increase is mostly due to the rise in heroin use with users sharing needles. “It’s gotten more difficult for abusers to obtain prescription pain medicine so cheaper heroin is more of an option,” Patterson said, “The urgency is we’re seeing an increase in behaviors that prompt the spread. People can be infected for decades without symptoms, but can spread it anyway.”
There is a cure, but it is expensive. “It is a twelve week course of treatment and the expense to treat people can be more than $100,000,” Patterson said. “For those who develop liver failure, liver cancer or possibly need liver transplants, the costs will be higher.” For Medicaid and Medicare patients as well as others under government care, the costs to the government and the taxpayers will be high. Patterson said she hopes the treatment costs will eventually decline as it becomes more available.
The health department is working to establish places within local communities for people to have treatment. “Right now, they must travel to Asheville,” she said. “We’re working with the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and Duke University to expand our treatment options in our communities.”
When Clay County Sheriff Vic Davis was contacted about whether the jail is seeing an increase in prisoners with Hepatitis C, he said he is not sure. “This is not something we track,” Davis said.
Information at the North Carolina Department of Public Health describes Hepatitis C as a liver disease caused by the Hepatitis C virus. Just like Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C is spread through blood. Some ways are from sharing needles while injecting drugs, unsafe injection practices in health care facilities or from an occupational needle stick. Prior to 1992 when the United States began widespread blood screening, Hepatitis C was often spread through blood transfusions and organ transplants.
There is little evidence the virus may be spread through sexual contact, but infected persons are advised to use condoms. There is no evidence it can be transmitted through casual contact such as hugging or shaking hands, through food or water, by sharing drinking glasses or utensils, by kissing, coughing or sneezing. Unfortunately, babies born to mothers with HCV infection can become infected during birth.
The Centers for Disease Control states an estimated four million Americans are living with chronic Hepatitis C; however, the disease is rarely reported because individuals with new infections usually have no symptoms or have very mild symptoms. Only about 20 to 30 percent of exposed people will develop symptoms, usually four to twelve weeks after exposure. These symptoms can include fever, abdominal pain, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, jaundice and dark urine.
Most people with acute Hepatitis C Virus infection experience lifelong chronic HCV infection, which can result in severe liver disease, liver damage, liver cancer and even death. The disease is most prevalent among persons born between 1945 and 1965; therefore, the CDC recommends all adults born during those years be tested at least once.
According to the CDC, those at highest risk for HCV infection include:
• People who inject or have ever injected illegal drugs, including those who injected only once many years ago.
• People who had blood transfusions, blood products or organ donations before July 1992, when sensitive tests for HCV were introduced for blood screening.
• People who received clotting factors before 1987.
Others at risk for HCV include:
• Long-term kidney dialysis patients.
• Health care workers, emergency and safety workers and corrections officers exposed to the blood of an infected person while on the job.
• Infants born to HCV-infected mothers.
• People with high-risk sexual behaviors, multiple sexual partners or sexually transmitted diseases.
• Those with HIV infection.
There is a cure but no preventative vaccine. The CDC says the best prevention is to avoid risky behaviors. Those infected should not be excluded from work, school, child care, sports or other settings since the disease is not spread through casual contact.
For questions about treatment or testing, contact the health department. “We do have resources to help indigent patients,” Patterson said.
The department is at 345 Courthouse Drive in Hayesville. Call 389-8053 or visit: www.clayhdnc.us.