A growing number of young, suburban New Jerseyans with opiate addictions are also infected with hepatitis C, according to a new study. These findings reflect a national trend that has prompted healthcare providers to seek more effective ways to connect patients with treatment and reduce the spread of the disease.
A hep-C screening program at Princeton House Behavioral Health, a healthcare network in central New Jersey, found more than 41 percent of the heroin addicts they tested in recent years were positive for the blood-borne virus, which can lie dormant for years but eventually destroy the liver and even cause death.
More than half of these patients did not know they were infected with the disease, and – despite the efforts of dedicated staff and the existence of highly-effective medicines – few of them were treated successfully, researchers discovered.
“It’s really a silent epidemic,” said Kathleen Seneca, an advanced practice nurse with ID Care, a private practice specializing in infectious diseases, who is a leader on the Princeton House study. “We’re losing patients to hep-C because of barriers to treatment.”
The findings at Princeton House, the behavioral healthcare arm of the Princeton Healthcare System, which has screened more than 800 intravenous drug users since it started in 20014 – most of them between the ages of 17 and 35 – illustrate what infectious disease experts are calling hep-C’s second wave. While the disease is usually associated with baby boomers, who make up three out of four of those infected, the rate of new infection is growing faster among young drug users.
While HIV rates are dropping, the incidence of hep-C has tripled in the past five years, explained Ruth Homer, a social worker and the research coordinator of the Princeton House project. And hep-C’s often quiet, insidious nature makes it especially hard to treat, Homer said. Carriers are often unaware they are infected and, unlike many other diseases, the virus can survive in a cotton ball for days and live in a water bottle for weeks; both items are used by IV drug users in the process of shooting up.
Educating drug users and others about the nature of hep-C and how to avoid contamination are key parts of the program, Homer said. It is also important that healthcare providers understand the new viral infection trend among younger individuals, actively screen for the disease, and refer those who test positive to treatment – for both the virus and the addiction, she added.
“In the last five years the ability to cure hep-C has just exploded,” Seneca said, noting new classes of drugs, direct-acting antivirals, that have proven highly effective in combatting the virus. While these new medications are extremely costly, older treatments only addressed the diseases’ symptoms. “You’re going to bend the curve of the disease with the treatment of both (addiction and hep-C),” she added.