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Heroin Abuse Leads to Highest Hepatitis C Rate in Nation

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The state of Maine is currently experiencing a heroin abuse epidemic that threatens to worsen unless severe steps are taken. Cases of hepatitis C infections have been skyrocketing since 2013 and are currently at the highest rate since the state first began tracking them in the 90’s. In fact, the number of hepatitis C cases in Maine is more than three times the national average. What’s to blame for the increase in infections?
Quite simply, it’s the increase of heroin use in the state. In fact, heroin use in the New England area, which includes Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and Massachusetts, has risen dramatically. The reason is that prescription opiate drug abusers have switched to heroin which provides a similar feeling of euphoria at a much lower cost.

What is Hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is a highly infectious virus transmitted through contact with infected blood. Contact with infected blood can be accidental, such as in a hospital setting, or through sexual intercourse. However, in Maine, an increasing number of transmissions are occurring due to illegal intravenous drug use. When left untreated the virus attacks the liver, eventually destroying it. Health professionals classify Hepatitis C infections as either acute or chronic. They must detect acute infections within the first six months. Most acute cases eventually turn into chronic infections, which can last for the remainder of an individual’s life.

Statistics Reveal the Alarming Truth

In 2014, the number of acute hepatitis C infections tripled from nine in 2013 to 31 in 2014. Meanwhile, chronic infections rose 25 percent, from 1,142 cases in 2010 to 1,425 in 2014. So far for 2015, the year-to-date numbers are tracking closely with those for 2014, indicating that the rise in infections isn’t leveling off. However, it isn’t just hepatitis C infection numbers that are rising. Heroin addiction rates also continue to climb. From 2010 to 2014, the number of individuals seeking treatment for heroin addiction rose from 1,115 to 3,463.

Stopping the Rise of Hepatitis

Maine’s needle exchange program has helped to keep the hepatitis C infection rate at its current levels, but it costs money to implement. There are currently only five clinic locations that serve the entire state. Officials with the program report that less than 20 percent of those utilizing the needle exchange program test positive for hepatitis C. They estimate that without the program a third of heroin users would contract the disease. However, the state simply does not have enough money to effectively reach all impacted individuals, especially low income ones.

Finding Solutions for Heroin Abuse

Maine’s plan for decreasing infection rates is to implement a free testing program and to better educate young users on the dangers of drug abuse. Others say that Maine’s hepatitis C problem is just a consequence of an issue that is not properly dealt with. It is vital that states, federal agencies and physicians immediately start an informational awareness campaign specifically for teenagers aimed at communicating the dangers of heroin abuse and intravenous drug use. Additionally, we must improve mental health programs by making them more accessible and less shameful for those seeking treatment. Stopping the rise of heroin use and hepatitis C infections must also include offering effective drug treatments to infected individuals as well as stopping new cases from developing.

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