Widening HCV Epidemic in Wisconsin

HEAL Blog is the recipient of the ADAP Advocacy Association’s 2015-2016 ADAP Social Media Campaign of the Year Award
By: Marcus J. Hopkins, Blogger

The state of Wisconsin has a Hepatitis C (HCV) problem; one that’s not going away, and is no longer affecting only the Baby Boomer birth cohort. In 2006, 2,355 new cases of HCV were reported by the state; in 2013, that number rose 12% to 2,638; between 2013 and 2015, the number of new HCV infections rose 42% to 3,745 in a span of only two years (Wisconsin Department of Health Services (WI DHS), 2016b).

While the incidence (the number of new cases) seems relatively low, relative to the population, it is important to remember that these numbers represent only the confirmed cases of HCV infection. Health officials estimate that there are roughly 90,000 people living with HCV in Wisconsin, 75% of whom have no idea they’re infected (Madden, 2017).

Wisconsin Department of Health Services

Photo Source: State of Wisconsin

More troubling than just the massive two-year-increase in new infections is the relatively new trend of new HCV infections amongst people aged 15-29. In the past ten years, reports of HCV have shifted from a single peak of middle age adults in 2006, to a distribution of two peaks in 2015 (Wisconsin Department of Health Services, 2016a). While the increased rate of HCV among older adults is likely the result of a new recommendation to screen the birth cohort, the new peak in infection rates among 15-29-year-olds is likely due to the vast increase in the abuse of prescription opioids and heroin in rural and suburban areas. Between 2011 and 2015, the rate of HCV infection in 15-29-year-olds increased from 40.4 per 100,000 people (2011) to 86.9 per 100,000 people (2015) (WI DHS, 2016b).

Not far behind them are those aged 30-49, with a rate of 74.8 per 100,000 (2015), up from 57.9 per 100,000 (2011), again, largely due to the increase in Injection Drug Use (IDU). It is estimated that 50% of People Who Inject Drugs (PWIDs) become infected with HCV within five years of injecting (WI DHS 2016b). Strong prescription opioids have been readily available via legitimate prescriptions since the mid-1990s to treat virtually any type of pain, during which time, prescription abuse has become a major issue amongst children and teens who gain access and become addicted to these drugs through either their own pain-related legitimate prescriptions, or through illegally obtaining prescriptions written for family members or friends.

While the prescription opioid addiction crisis has been endured for over twenty years, now, only recently have drug manufacturers – such as Perdue Pharma, maker of OxyContin and Opana, the two most widely abused opioid drugs in the U.S. – been called to account for both the addictive nature of their drugs and the oftentimes extraneous supply of medications being routed through local and family-owned pharmacies that often lack the same level of scrutiny and oversight needed to effectively combat over-prescribing and abuse. Wisconsin also does not current require a physical exam for patients to be prescribed opioid painkillers, nor is ID required for all opioid prescription purchases (HIV/HCV Co-Infection Watch, 2017).

Wisconsin also has no doctor shopping laws on the books – laws preventing patients from seeking prescriptions from multiple physicians – which limits the state’s ability to crack down on patients who attempt to gain prescriptions from various sources, as well as prescribers who are lax in their monitoring of patient behaviors. In conjunction with the latter, Wisconsin physicians and pharmacists are not required by the state to undergo mandatory education regarding appropriate opioid prescribing practices in order to ensure that they do not over-prescribe, and that they are prescribing opioids only for medically necessary reasons (HIV/HCV Co-Infection Watch, 2017).

While Wisconsin is certainly not experiencing HCV infection rates as high as other Midwestern and Southern states, such as Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, or West Virginia, this relatively sudden increase in rates and new infections is troubling. We, here at HEAL Blog, will continue to monitor the situation as it develops.

References:

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Disclaimer: HEAL Blogs do not necessarily reflect the views of the Community Access National Network (CANN), but rather they provide a neutral platform whereby the author serves to promote open, honest discussion about Hepatitis-related issues and updates. Please note that the content of some of the HEAL Blogs might be graphic due to the nature of the issues being addressed in it.

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