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Drug use likely pushing rise in hepatitis C cases

Portage reports 189 cases in 2016

By DAVE O'BRIEN Staff Writer Published: July 17, 2017 4:00 AM

Intravenous drug use is driving up the number of reported cases of the viral liver disease hepatitis C in Portage County, health officials say.

New cases of the disease, which is spread through contact with contaminated blood and can be spread by addicts who use shared needles, rose to 189 in 2016, according to the Portage County Health Department. The increase in cases is believed to be heavily related to the increased use of illegal drugs such as heroin, officials said.

"Many of our reports come from drug (rehabilitation centers) who test patients at admission," said Becky Lehman, director of health education and promotion at the health department.

Agents with the Portage County Drug Task Force have also noted a dramatic increase in hepatitis C infections among addicts, Commander Larry Limbert recently said. Others end up being tested after being admitted to area hospitals said Susie Forgacs, a public health nurse with the health department.

According to the health department, the incidence rate for chronic hepatitis C in Portage County increased by 75 percent from 2013 to 2016. There were 161 reported cases in 2014, another 192 in 2015 and 189 reported cases last year, according to health department statistics.

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Many people who test positive for HCV are not aware of their status, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Lehman said many Portage residents who test positive for the virus likewise are not aware they have it until they are tested.

"Most people have no symptoms when they initially contract hep C," Lehman said. "Symptoms and complications occur later."

The CDC estimates between 2.7 million and 3.9 million people in the United States have chronic hepatitis C, which accounts of 75 to 85 percent of all cases of those infected with HCV. The other type of infection is called acute hepatitis C, which is a short-term infection in which the symptoms are more mild, but which may develop into chronic hepatitis C.

Along with intravenous drug users, those who received donated blood or organs prior to 1992 are at increased risk, though standard screening of blood donations since then has made infection by this cause very rare, according to the CDC. Lehman said doctors now encourage testing among members of the "baby boomer" generation who received blood transfusions prior to 1992.

The virus can be transmitted through contaminated blood only in shared needles, improperly disposed-of medical waste or unsterilized tattoo equipment. It also can be transmitted through sexual intercourse, and pregnant women can spread the virus to their children. The disease is not airborne, and is not transmitted by kissing, hugging, holding hands or sharing utensils.

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Hepatitis can affect the liver's ability to do its numerous jobs: Filtering toxins from the body, assisting in converting food into energy and storing fats, sugars and vitamins, among other processes. It also aids immune response.

Lehman said to prevent infection, the public and first responders should observe caution when handling needles or medical waste contaminated with blood. Do not let another person's blood come in contact with broken skin or cuts, don't share needles and ensure tattoo shops use sterile equipment and take safety precautions.

Symptoms of hepatitis C include fever, fatigue, dark urine, nausea, loss of appetite, jaundice -- the yellowing of the eyes or skin -- and abdominal pain. There is no vaccine for the disease, like there are for variants hepatitis A and hepatitis B, but the disease is treatable and curable.

Some complications are deadly. Between 1 and 5 percent of those with the virus, also known as HCV, or with chronic hepatitis C will go on to die from liver cancer or cirrhosis -- which happens when a healthy liver becomes infected or disease and scarred, according to the CDC. The disease is the No. 1 reason for liver transplants in the U.S., according to the American Liver Foundation.

Hepatitis B cases also have increased in Portage County since 2012, from 21 chronic hepatitis B cases that year to 45 chronic hepatitis B cases in 2016. A vaccine for hepatitis B is 95 percent effective in preventing chronic infection and the resulting cirrhosis and liver cancer, according to the World Health Organization.

Because they are different viruses, it is possible to have both hepatitis B and hepatitis C at the same time, Forgacs said, along with the other viruses in the family: Hepatitis A, D, E and F, she said.


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