By: Marcus J. Hopkins, Blogger
The Commonwealth (state) of Kentucky has become the first state in the U.S. to require pregnant women to be tested for the Hepatitis C virus (HCV). This comes as the state is in the grasp of a crippling opioid addiction epidemic that has led to an increased number of new Acute HCV infections in the Appalachian Mountain region (Smith, 2018). This may, in fact, be the first piece of U.S. legislation that makes mandatory the testing of any specific demographic who are not incarcerated, as I have yet to see another law that requires testing, rather than simply mandate that a certain demographic – usually the Birth Cohort (people born between 1945-1965 – be offeredtesting.
The article cited above makes a curious claim:
“The disease can easily spread from mother to child, so starting this month, pregnant women in Kentucky must be screened.”
This asertion is questionable, at best, as the most recent data I’ve seen from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates that vertical transmission occurs in only 5.8% of infants born to mothers monoinfected with only HCV, and 10.8% of infants born to mothers co-infected with HIV and HCV (Koneru, 2016). While vertical transmission is certainly a concern, the data available do not support the claim being made, nor do they necessitate the passage of mandatory testing protocol. In fact, CDC recommendations, which admittedly have not been revised since 2015, list pregnant women under “Persons for Whom Routine HCV Testing Is Not Recommended (unless they have risk factors for infection)” (CDC, 2015).
I am certainly in favor of universal screening protocols, as evidenced by myriad HEAL Blog posts calling for expanding testing protocols to make testing mandatory in all healthcare settings. That said, it is curious to me that Kentucky has chosen pregnant women as the target of mandatory testing. The cynic in me wonders if this is truly a forward-thinking approach to reducing incidence of HCV transmission, or if it serves another, less altruistic purpose: using test results to infer opioid abuse.
Much of the HCV epidemic in Kentucky can be traced back to Injection Drug Use (IDU) of prescription or illicit opioid drugs (and occasionally stimulants such as methamphetamine). As of June 2018, in 22 states and the District of Columbia, substance use during pregnancy constitutes child abuse, and in three states ((MO, SD, and WI) can result in civil commitment (Guttmacher Institute, 2018). The state of Kentucky has not, yet, criminalized substance use during pregnancy, but given the current political temperament in the state, it isn’t outside the realm of possibility that state legislators will do so in the future. I fear, though there is no current evidence that this is the case, that legislators may use any findings of increased vertical transmission of HCV – HCV infection that may be attributed to IDU – as cause to join those 22 states and DC.
My secondary concern relates to the affordability of HCV testing. The costs of pregnancy are consistently increasing, while wages have remained relatively stagnant. Kentucky’s poverty rate hovers around 19.0%, which makes the various costs associated with being pregnant already burdensome; adding an additional testing requirement that may increase the amount of out-of-pocket spending for pregnant families is a concern.
Those concerns aside, it is always a good thing when HCV testing protocols are expanded. It will be interesting to see if this change in protocol will result in a higher incidence of new Acute HCV infections, or if it will have the desired impact of reducing vertical transmission.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2015, October 15). Testing Recommendations for Hepatitis C Virus Infection. Atlanta, GA: United States Department of Health and Human Services: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention: Division of Viral Hepatitis: Hepatitis C Information: Testing Recommendations. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/hcv/guidelinesc.htm
- Guttmacher Institute. (2018, June). Substance Use During Pregnancy. New York, NY: Guttmacher Institute: State Laws and Policies. Retrieved from: https://www.guttmacher.org/state-policy/explore/substance-use-during-pregnancy
- Koneru A, Nelson N, Hariri S, et al. Increased Hepatitis C Virus (HCV) Detection in Women of Childbearing Age and Potential Risk for Vertical Transmission — United States and Kentucky, 2011–2014. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2016;65:705–710. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6528a2
- Smith, L. (2018, July 03). KY becomes first US state to require hepatitis C testing for pregnant women. Louisville, KY: WDRB. Retrieved from: http://www.wdrb.com/story/38567039/ky-becomes-first-state-in-nation-to-require-hepatitis-c-testing-for-pregnant-women
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.