Tag Archives: Appalachia

Kentucky Moves to Prevent Vertical Hepatitis C Transmission

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 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).

HCV Screening

Photo Source: Passport Health

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.

References:

  • 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

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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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The Kids Aren’t Alright

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

For nearly three years, healthcare officials and epidemiologists have been sounding the alarm: the face of the Hepatitis C (HCV) epidemic is changing – it’s getting younger by the minute. We, here at HEAL Blog, have been beating that drum alongside them, and yet, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has yet to formally change the screening recommendations to reflect the new reality. As more evidence piles up that new Acute HCV infections are largely being driven by prescription opioid and heroin Injection Drug Use (IDU) among Americans aged 15-45.

A piece written by the Digestive Health Team out of the Cleveland Clinic – Why Is Hepatitis C on the Rise in 20- to 29-Year-Olds? – explicitly says as much. In addition, while African-Americans share a disproportionate burden in the epidemic (as a percentage of the population), these issues are particularly pronounced in white, non-urban (suburban and rural) populations living primarily in Appalachia, the Midwest, and New England.

So, what is it about these areas that drives people to abuse prescription opioids, heroin, and/or other illicit drugs? There isn’t just one answer. A lot of the areas where these outbreaks and epidemics are so pronounced share several similarities – struggling economic circumstances; higher-than-average unemployment; less access to and utilization of healthcare services; high rates of Social Security Disability Insurance utilization; economies driven by high-intensity labor industries (mining, for example). Any combination of these factors can lead people to develop substance addictions; that these areas are more remote with fewer outlets and opportunities for employment, entertainment, or social engagement essentially creates enclaves where people can all but disappear into a considerably isolated world of addiction.

Where the kids come in often has to do with the friends, relatives, and other adults whose legitimate opioid prescriptions get unknowingly diverted by experimenting teens who inadvertently become addicted to the highly addictive substances. As a young adult living in a small city in Tennessee in the 2000s, virtually all any of my friends and co-workers wanted to do was find “pills” (primarily OxyContin). Whereas I grew up in the cocaine-fueled 80s and ecstasy-addled 90s, parties in the 2000s were, for my generation, comparatively somber affairs, with everyone pilled out on opioids and barely able to function. Once the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) started to catch on and legislators began tightening prescribing guidelines, they turned to cheaper and more readily available heroin.

With IDU comes a whole host of risks that, for much of the 80s and 90s – particularly as it related to HIV/AIDS – were made explicitly known. Every health and D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) I was made to attend as a child, pre-teen, and teenager included a very graphic section on the dangers of injecting drugs. Almost every school in the 90s had a rumor going around about some random person who was dancing at a nearby club and got stabbed with a used needle and got AIDS. While a lot of hyperbole was involved in these stories, the sense of horror we were expected to evince – “WHAT?!?! A DIRTY NEEDLE?!?!” – led a lot of us to become more risk averse, particularly in our younger years.

Twenty years later? A lot of those fears have been forgotten. We no longer see horrific images of people dying from AIDS – the treatments are amazing, tolerable, and don’t kill you. We aren’t afraid of diseases like HIV or viral hepatitis, anymore, because…well, HIV isn’t a death sentence, and HCV is curable. Hepatitis B is still a huge problem, as it has no cure. But, the reality is that neither the fear of becoming addicted, nor the fear of becoming infected are presently palpable enough to prevent people from even starting. What starts out as a way to kick back with your friends and loosen up can quickly turn into a daily habit and morph into a physical dependency. Once you’re dependent and addicted, the risks become less frightening.

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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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