Growth in heroin abuse suspected in Hep C rise

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In 2008, the Rock County Health Department saw seven confirmed cases of Hepatitis C. In 2011, the number leaped to 74, and by 2014 there were 93 cases reported.

Public Health Nursing Supervisor Deborah Erickson cited multiple possibilities behind the increase.

“A lot of this is because testing has been increased,” Erickson said.

But higher incidences of heroin abuse also appears to be a factor.

The public health department began recommending that adults get tested for the often-symptomless disease, and for many older folks, Hepatitis C is something they’ve had for years.

But a “big bump” in Hepatitis C cases could be attributed to heroin usage in Rock County and Wisconsin. Erickson said that particularly in young people, the number of cases is increasing in Rock County.

“The use of heroin in the county has skyrocketed,” Erickson said.

According to the Wisconsin Public Document “Hepatitis C in Wisconsin: Focus on Young People who Inject Drugs,” new cases of Hepatitis C have increased fivefold from 2003 to 2013. Heroin use between 2008 and 2011 doubled, and heroin-related trips to the emergency room tripled between 2008 and 2012.

Of the individuals who use intravenous drugs and tested positive for Hepatitis C, over half reported sharing drug equipment in the last six months.

According to the 2014 Wisconsin Hepatitis C Surveillance Summary, trends in Rock County follow Wisconsin trends closely. From 2013 to 2014, the rate of all Hepatitis C rose 21 percent.

Since 1994, Wisconsin has had a needle exchange program to help prevent transmission of HIV and Hepatitis C for drug users. Prevention Specialist at the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin Rachael Cooper said the needle exchange helps prevent the spreading of infectious diseases, but that heroin use in the state has increased and that certainly is related to the spike in Hepatitis C cases.

“We’ve also seen an increased number of overdose deaths,” Cooper said.

She said the AIDS Resource Center prescribes a medication that helps prevent overdose to drug users or people who think they may know a drug user. The medication is called Naxolone, and Cooper said it blocks the action of opiates in the brain to prevent overdose and death.

For more information about the Wisconsin needle exchange or HIV and Hepatitis C resources, contact the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin at 608-258-6644.

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