Amid opioid epidemic, hepatitis C patients getting younger

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Amid opioid epidemic, hepatitis C patients getting younger

Hepatitis C infections are on the rise in younger populations.

When Cody Johnson was cleaning out a donation bin as part of his work for a snow removal and grounds company, his hand hit a used hypodermic needle that pierced his skin. As a precaution, his company sent him to the doctor, where they did some lab work to make sure he had not been infected with a variety of possibilities, including HIV.

To Johnson’s surprise, the tests came back positive for the hepatitis C virus, not from the needle stick, but from his own previous drug use.

“They said I had it for a good bit of time,” said Johnson, 31, of Glens Falls, who is clean today. “I felt completely fine, and at the time I didn’t have any insurance, so I didn’t do anything about it.”

And like most of the 3.5 million people infected with hepatitis C — a virus that infects and in time (if chronic) destroys the liver — Johnson had no symptoms.

Killing more Americans annually than every other infectious disease combined, including HIV, tuberculosis and pneumonia, hepatitis C is known as the silent killer.

Until recently, baby boomers (born between 1945 and 1965), were five times more likely to be infected with hepatitis C. But the opioid epidemic is changing the landscape, as most of the new cases are among young people who inject drugs.

“Historically, it was focused on the baby boomer population, but we’ve noticed that half of the patients we are treating are outside that,” said Dr. Tom Portuese of Hudson Headwaters Health Network in Glens Falls. “They are often recently clean from opiates and many patients are referred from addiction treatment centers with untreated hep C … Most commonly, they are in their 20s and 30s. It parallels IV drug use.”

In a report released last year by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of new recorded hepatitis C cases tripled in five years — from 850 in 2010 to 2,436 in 2015 — marking a 15-year high.

But these figures do not reflect the true scale of the epidemic, CDC officials say. They estimate about 34,000 new hepatitis C infections actually occurred in the U.S. in 2015.

Historically, hepatitis C cases were most commonly found in urban hubs, but the bulk — about 70 percent — of new cases are in suburban and rural settings and are particularly among young white women and men who inject drugs, according to the CDC.

Additionally, between 20 and 30 percent of uninfected people who inject drugs acquire the infection each year.

In New York state, since 2001, more than 254,200 chronic HCV cases have been reported. In 2014, there were 16,169 chronic cases and 127 acute cases reported, with 51.2 percent of new chronic hepatitis C cases diagnosed outside of New York City.

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