Melbourne, Australia: Ten Million Drug Abusers Have Hepatitis C: Research

28 Jul

A drug addict prepares a hit of heroin. Some 10 million people who inject illegal drugs have hepatitis C while 1.2 million have hepatitis B, according to the first global estimate of infection rates among this population, published ThursdayEnlarge Photo

A drug addict prepares a hit of heroin. Some 10 million people who inject illegal …

 

Some 10 million people who inject illegal drugs have hepatitis C while 1.2 million have hepatitis B, according to the first global estimate of infection rates among this population, published Thursday.

Both viral diseases are debilitating and potentially deadly, and public health officials must step up efforts to combat blood-borne transmission and to lower treatment costs, the researchers urged.

The health and economic costs of hepatitis C (HCV) spread via injected drugs, on its own, may be as high or higher than for similarly transmitted cases of HIV, they said.

The study, published in the British journal The Lancet, found that fully two-thirds of the global population of “injecting drug users” have been exposed, and thus infected, to HVC.

About 80 percent are destined to develop chronic infections, and up to 11 percent of these individuals will, within two decades, suffer cirrhosis, which can cause liver failure and cancer.

There is currently no vaccine for the hepatitis C virus.

The portion of drug users with HCV — inferred from the presence of hepatitis C antibody — varied among the 77 countries from which data was collected.

The rate was 60 to 80 percent in 25 nations, including Spain (80 percent), Norway (76), Germany (75), France (74), the United States (73), China (67) and Canada (64).

In 12 countries, the percentage was higher than 80, including Italy, Portugal, Pakistan, The Netherlands, Thailand and Mexico, which had a 97 percent infection rate among mainlining drug users.

The United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia had among the lowest percentage, just over half.

Hepatitis B virus (HBV) can be transmitted intravenously, as well as via sexual contact, and from mother to child.

There are 350 million people chronically infected worldwide, almost all of them exposed to the virus as children. “This is why universal infant vaccination against hepatitis B is so crucial to long term control of the virus,” the authors note.

HBV is the second most important known human cancer-causing agent, after tobacco. The virus also causes cirrhosis and liver cancer, and is blamed for some 600,000 deaths each year, according to the World Health Organisation.

The study, led by Louisa Degenhardt of the Bernet Institute in Melbourne and Paul Nelson of the University of New South Wales, also in Australia, canvassed data from 59 countries on HBV rates among drug users who use needles.

Infection rates were five to 10 percent in 21 countries, and more than 10 percent in 10 countries, including the United States (12 percent).

Worldwide, the highest rates were in Vietnam (20 percent), Estonia (19), Saudi Arabia (18) and Taiwan (17).

The authors said high prices for medicine remains a major barrier to treatment of viral hepatitis, much as they have been in the past for HIV and AIDS.

“There are growing efforts to bring viral hepatitis treatments into the same lower cost access framework as antiretrovirals,” they said, referring to the standard drugs used to hold HIV in check.

“But the significance of viral hepatitis needs to receive great attention than it does at present.”

July 28 is World Hepatitis Day.

NEWS UPDATE:

More than 4,000 people in England may need a liver transplant by 2020 because of hepatitis C, experts have warnedEnlarge Photo

More than 4,000 people in England may need a liver transplant by 2020 because of …

More than 4,000 people in England may need a liver transplant by 2020 because of hepatitis C, experts have warned.

Data from the Health Protection Agency (HPA) suggests around 4,200 people could need a transplant owing to serious damage to their liver, with many unaware they have the condition at present.

Experts estimate around 216,000 people in the UK are living with chronic hepatitis C, many of whom are currently undiagnosed. People can catch the disease through contact with the blood – and less commonly the bodily fluids – of an infected person.

Those who share needles and use unsterile drugs equipment are particularly at risk, although people who had a blood transfusion before 1991 or received blood products before 1986 have a higher chance, as well as those having treatments abroad. Sharing toothbrushes, razors and scissors also heightens the risk, as does having tattoos.

Dr Helen Harris, hepatitis expert at the HPA, said: “Many people are unaware that they are infected with the virus because they have no symptoms at all. If people think they have been exposed to the virus, it is vital that they contact their GP for a test. The earlier they are diagnosed the better, as they will have a greater chance of successfully treating their infection.”

The report said 15,000 people in England could be living with cirrhosis of the liver or liver cancer caused by hepatitis C in 2020 unless they are diagnosed and treated.

Drug treatments can successfully clear the virus in more than half of those infected. In 2010, 7,834 new diagnoses of hepatitis C were reported to the HPA in England.

A Department of Health spokesman said: “More people are being tested for hepatitis C, leading to more people getting the right treatment. Treatment successfully clears the virus in more than half of all cases, and there are newer, more effective treatments being developed.

“But there are many people who don’t know they have hepatitis C as it doesn’t usually cause symptoms for many years – it could be someone who injected drugs once 30 years ago, or someone who got a piercing with an unsterilised needle.

“World Hepatitis Day is a timely reminder that if in doubt, get checked out. Anyone who wants more information about hepatitis C should talk to their GP or visit NHS Choices.”

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