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We all know the risk of overdose that puts the lives of opioid users in danger. But a different threat has emerged from the opioid epidemic that is equally as dangerous.

Hepatitis C Risk Increases

Injection drug users are contracting Hepatitis C at a rapid rate, particularly in the areas of the country seeing the most precipitous rise in overdoses (Midwest, Appalachia, and New England in particular). Hepatitis C was on the decline for nearly 20 years, but 2015 saw an estimated 34,000 cases of the disease- up nearly three times that of the rate in 2010. A large contributor to this rise is the increased prevalence of heroin and other injected drug users and the lack of sterile needles. Sharing needles is all too common among injection drug users, and that trend has allowed blood-borne diseases such as hepatitis to spread rapidly. Hepatitis C, when left untreated, can progress to cirrhosis of the liver or cancer. Treatment for hepatitis C is extremely costly, with an average cost of $30,000 per person, which could mean billions for the necessary widespread treatment that would be required for eradication. Further, Hepatitis C has the added danger of showing no symptoms or liver damage for up to 20-40 years after infection. This leaves most people in a position where by the time they realize they are sick, it may be too late to reverse the damage or prevent them from giving it to others.

What is the solution?

Experts advise making sterile needles available to users, which would likely be given out at “safe injection” sites, as are being experimentally set up around the country. However, there is a supply and demand issue, with huge pockets of opioid users in rural communities or areas with limited resources for programs like the safe injection sites. The CDC estimates that nearly 2,200 programs need to be set up, which is no small feat. Further, politicians encounter opposition from some who say that these injection sites only encourage users to continue in their addiction and decrease odds of their getting clean. These opposers aren’t wrong, but it’s clearly a complex issue with no black or white “right” or “wrong” answer. Addicts need help, yes, and treatment overall, but if the goal is to save lives, providing addicts with sterile needles (much like the use of narcan for overdose reversals) could save countless people. In addition, more widespread testing for Hepatitis C in emergency rooms and clinics could at the very least make users aware of the disease. This would give them the option to pursue treatment, and hopefully make them take precaution against transmitting the disease to others. Yet as with all the other “bandaids” to addiction, it’s not enough. Indeed, giving someone a devastating diagnosis like that but offering them no resources for addiction treatment could be pointless. An addict in the throes of his disease is already hopeless, and without programs in place that could offer someone the needed help, they would probably continue using in order to numb their reality. The spread of Hepatitis C is concerning, but it all goes back to providing complete addiction treatment to all those who need it. We are a long way off, but we can hope that state and federal officials will find a way to allocate funds in an efficient manner for addiction treatment.

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