The Centers for Disease Control estimates that about 34,000 Americans contracted hepatitis C in 2015. Maine has also seen an increase in reported infections.
Cases of acute hepatitis C nearly tripled nationally from 2010 to 2015, according to the CDC. Maine’s rate also tripled within that time frame, and state epidemiologist Dr. Siiri Bennett says it’s likely connected to another public health issue.
“At the moment, it appears that current transmission is being driven by current drug users,” she says.
The most commonly reported risk factor for hepatitis C is injection drug use. Just as the opioid crisis is showing no signs of slowing down, Kenney Miller of the Health Equity Alliance says the rate of hepatitis C infections continue unabated.
“I really think we’re only beginning to see the burden of this issue as far as hepatitis C is concerned, mostly because it occurs on something of a time lag,” he says.
Acute hepatitis C can be asymptomatic. But 75-85 percent of cases develop into chronic hepatitis C, which is still infectious and can cause cirrhosis and liver cancer.
Miller says people who are actively injecting drugs should get tested for the virus every six months. He says they should also use syringe exchange programs, though there are only about half a dozen in the state.
“There should be a syringe exchange in every county to prevent the further growth of this hidden, silent epidemic,” he says.
Miller says the Health Equity Alliance may seek emergency legislation to fund syringe exchange programs.
This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.