The majority of individuals affected by Hepatitis C virus (HCV) are currently using or have previously used IV drugs. Exposure to the virus spreads through the blood, often with the sharing of needles from person to person. It can appear in an acute and curable form if detected early enough after initial exposure. Unfortunately, most people are unaware they are carrying the virus and don’t usually exhibit symptoms until years following initial exposure, making it difficult to reduce the damage caused by the disease. If an individual has previously engaged in IV drug use, they may benefit from HCV screening.
While the majority of individuals carrying HCV engage in IV drug use, this population also faces the greatest barriers to treatment for the disease including risks associated with medication interactions, costs, and appropriate screening.
What Is Hepatitis C And Who Is Most At Risk?
Hepatitis C is a liver disease, spread through a virus, and most often affects those who share needles, as is seen in IV drug use. While individuals with HCV can live full lives, populations engaging in IV drug use face several obstacles to the quality of care needed to prevent the long-term dangers of chronic HCV.
While millions of individuals carry HCV, many are unaware they have the disease. Symptoms of the virus can take years to manifest, though once they do, the damage may be irreversible.
Signs And Symptoms Of Hepatitis C
Initial exposure (within the first six months) to the virus may initiate symptoms similar to flu, including a low-grade fever, fatigue or weakness, and loss of appetite. More severe symptoms may develop early on or years after initial exposure and include vomiting, stomach cramping, joint weakness and pain, muscle soreness, changes in urine or bowel routine, and jaundice.
Beware Of The Following Signs And Symptoms Of Hepatitis C:
- Low-grade fever
- Fatigue, weakness
- Loss of appetite
- Nausea, vomiting
- Stomach cramping
- Joint weakness and muscle pain
- Changes in urine, bowel routine
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin)
If you have recently shared a needle with another person and are exhibiting any combination of these symptoms, it is essential you get screened for the virus. Early screening and treatment can eliminate acute HCV and potentially cure chronic forms of the disease.
Barriers To Treatment For Hepatitis C For IV Drug Users
There are several barriers to treatment for Hepatitis C among populations engaging in IV drug use. Many of the abused substances delivered intravenously can negatively impact medications used in the treatment of HCV. These medications can increase overdose risk. Additionally, someone who is only recently in recovery may relapse and either discontinue treatment or continue treatment despite the known overdose risk. Generally speaking, an inability to maintain abstinence from drug use during HCV treatment is a primary barrier to care. In other cases, side effects from the medications or substance interactions can prevent treatment continuation.
Some of these drugs, despite their proven effectiveness in stopping the virus, come with a major price tag surpassing more than $1,000 a pill. And they are not always covered by insurance, creating yet another barrier to treatment.
Other barriers to treatment include a lack of screening as those who are engaging in illicit IV drug use are not likely to seek medical screening. Another major barrier is a lack of awareness among the general population of both the dangers of HCV, and the benefits of treatment for the virus.
How Is Hepatitis C Treated?
Individuals who are no longer using IV drugs or alcohol may benefit from the use of antiviral medications designed to stop reproduction of the Hepatitis C virus. These drugs are highly effective and may be used alone or in combination with other medications.
Drugs used to treat HCV include Harvoni, Olysio, Sovaldi, and Viekira Pak. Ribavirin is a another medication used to interrupt ribonucleic acid (RNA) metabolism, again reducing replication of the virus.
Use of these medications alone or in combination depends on the person’s overall health, viral load, whether or not cirrhosis of the liver has set in, and whether or not they continue to abuse substances or use substances at low levels during treatment. Someone is considered free of HCV after they show a sustained virologic response (no virus detected in the blood) for six months.
Needle Exchanges As A Method Of HCV Prevention
As a method of harm reduction, some cities have instituted needle exchange programs designed to prevent the spread of blood pathogens like HCV. One program in New York found the initial HCV prevalence of a staggering 91% among participants in the program. This number has since dropped to 56%, a significant decrease in exposure to the virus from shared needles.
With needle sharing accounting for greater than nearly 70% of Hepatitis C infections, programs like the one implemented in New York can have a major preventative impact across the United States.
Treatment For IV Drug Use
If you are currently engaging in IV drug use, you are at high risk of contracting HCV. DrugRehab.org is an online resource designed to connect you with the resources, professional support, and evidence-based treatment options to put you on the path to recovery. Contact us to speak with someone in confidence and discover the many benefits of recovery beginning today.