Hepatitis C is on the rise in Appalachian Kentucky, and dirty needles are to blame; officials predict surge of HIV to follow

Kentucky has the highest rate of acute hepatitis C in the nation and public officials predict it could get much worse, Claire Galofaro and Dylan Lovan report for the Kentucky bureau of The Associated Press.

Dirty needles shared by drug users is the primary cause of this upsurge in hepatitis C, a contagious liver disease that destroys the liver, often leads to cancer or cirrhosis, and is the leading cause of liver transplants. It is spread primarily through contact with the blood of an infected person.

Patton Couch talks about his troubles.
(AP photo by David Stephenson)

Patton Couch, 25 and one month sober, is one of thousands of young Appalachian drug users recently diagnosed with hepatitis C. Galofaro tells the story of how one night four years ago, Couch said “he plucked a dirty needle from a pile at a flophouse and jabbed it into his scarred arm” even though he knew most of the addicts in the room probably had hepatitis C.

“All I cared about was how soon and how fast I could get it in,” he says. “I hated myself, it was misery. But when you’re in the grips of it, the only way I thought I could escape it was one more time.”

Public-health officials are also concerned that Kentucky or part of it will become the next Scott County, Indiana, which is dealing with one of the worst American HIV outbreaks among injection drug users in decades, Galofaro notes. She says Scottsburg is much like many Appalachian towns – which have poor and/or few treatment options, and have long been seized by an epidemic of prescription drug abuse.

“One person could be Typhoid Mary of HIV,” said Dr. Jennifer Havens, an epidemiologist at the University of Kentucky‘s Center on Drug and Alcohol Research, who has studied Perry County drug users for years as the hepatitis rate spiraled through small-town drug circles there. Of the 503 drug users she has tracked since 2008, 70 percent have hepatitis C.

“An explosion of hepatitis C, transmitted through injection drug use and unprotected sex, can foreshadow a wave of HIV cases,” Galofaro writes.

In Scott County, 160 people have tested positive for HIV in five months, compared to just 49 drug users testing positive in New York City in all of 2013, Greg Millett, director of public policy for the Foundation for AIDS Research, told Golofaro. “This is a canary in the coal mine for other places with high rates of hepatitis C,” he said.

In a study released last month, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that hepatitis C cases across four Appalachian states — Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia and Virginia — more than tripled between 2006 and 2012.

Kentucky leads the nation in the rate of acute hepatitis C, with 4.1 cases for every 100,000 residents, more than six times the national average, according to the CDC.

Officials in Appalachian are “scrambling to figure out how to stop it, whether through needle exchange programs, drug treatment or jail,” Galofaro writes.

Kentucky passed a law in March allowing local health departments to create needle-exchange programs. The guidelines have been set, but it is up to the counties to decide whether they want one.

Louisville and Lexington plan to launch needle exchange programs this summer, but “few rural communities have expressed interest,” possibly letting the larger cities work out the details first, Van Ingram, executive director for the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy, told Galofaro.

Even with the law in place, the debate about the needle-exchange programs persist. Proponents maintain that “we have to change the way we think” about treatment and that doing nothing is not an option, others told her that in small communities, the “fear of being exposed as a drug user may keep users away,” and others objected on a moral ground, “claiming they facilitate drug use rather than prevent it,” Galofaro reports.

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