Heroin and Hepatitis Go Hand in Hand

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

Over the past year, HEAL Blog has paid a lot of attention to heroin, particularly in relation to the massive increase in heroin and prescription opioid overdoses in Appalachia, the Midwest, and the Northeast. While the purpose of HEAL – “HEAL” standing for “Hepatitis: Education, Advocacy, and Leadership” – is to specifically address issues related to Viral Hepatitis, and particularly Hepatitis C (HCV), when we cover issues related to prescription opioid abuse and heroin, we sometimes fail to connect the dots between the two topics. There is, in fact, a very high correlation between Injection Drug Use (IDU), People Who Inject Drugs (PWIDs), and the transmission of HCV: most new HCV infections in the three previously listed regions are related to IDU.

Sources of Infection for Persons with Hepatitis C

Photo Source: Pinterest

HCV and HCV-related co-morbidities (e.g. – Cirrhosis, Advanced Liver Disease) kill more Americans each year than any other infectious disease (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2016). It is also one of the most expensive diseases to treat, with Direct Acting Agent (DAA) drug Wholesale Acquisition Costs (WACs) ranging between $50,000 and $100,000 for twelve weeks of treatment. This makes preventing the spread of HCV not only a matter of physical health, but one of fiscal health.

Despite pharmaceutical manufacturers’ arguments that the one-time cost of a regimen to achieve a Sustained Virologic Response (SVR – “cure”) is far cheaper than the long-term costs of other diseases, not to mention the long-term costs that arise if HCV goes untreated, state and Federal healthcare budget departments remain unconvinced. Budgeting processes generally focus on a single year, rather than accounting for multi-year spending, so arguing that long-term expenditures “cost” more hasn’t been an effective argument. Even with the clandestine pricing agreements and rebates – clandestine, because they are not made public due to “trade secrets” laws – states have yet to begin treating every HCV-infected client on their government-funded rosters. To do so would blow through entire pharmacy budgets several times over, in many states.

With PWIDs representing the highest number of new HCV infections between the ages of 18-35, state legislatures are starting to come around to the realization that the best way to avoid spending that money on expensive treatments is to put into place Harm Reduction measures that are shown to prevent the spread of blood borne illnesses. As it is very difficult and unfeasible to stop IDU, syringe exchanges can be put into place that allow PWIDs to inject using clean needles, rather than sharing them.

Syringe exchanges have, for much of the past forty years, been largely reviled by politically conservative politicians and states; many Republican politicians have repeatedly argued that state-sponsored syringe exchanges will only encourage bad behavior, serving as a tacit endorsement of IDU. Now that prescription opioid and heroin abuse has moved outside of the urban areas and into the suburban and rural areas that serve as bastions of the Conservative ideal, suddenly, these politicians are coming around to the idea.

Medical technician counting needles.

Photo Source: Daily Beast

In the past two years, several considerably conservative states have passed laws allowing syringe exchanges to be established – Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia, to name a few – largely in response to a relative explosion of new HIV and HCV infections related to IDU. The problems that politicians and their constituents once relegated to the big cities have come to their quiet towns, and have done so right under their noses. The lessons out of Scott County, Indiana, where nearly 200 people tested positive for HIV near the end of 2015 and into 2016, are still reverberating throughout the region, and people are starting to look at ways to prevent the spread of disease, rather than punish the behavior.

It is clear that the opioid and heroin abuse epidemic is not going away, anytime soon. Since we aren’t likely to stop currently addicted people from injecting drugs, the smartest path forward is to at least make certain they can do so safely.


  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2016, May 04). Hepatitis C Kills More Americans than Any Other Infectious Disease. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Newsroom Home: Press Materials: CDC Newsroom Releases. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2016/p0504-hepc-mortality.html


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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