Pubdate: Sun, 22 Jun 2003 Source: Sunday Gazette-Mail (WV) Copyright: 2003, Sunday Gazette-Mail Author: Tara Tuckwiller

HEPATITIS C ON THE RISE AMONG OPIATE ABUSERS Of all infectious diseases, hepatitis C has been one of the least worrisome in West Virginia. In all of 2001, for instance, only 26 people in the entire state were diagnosed with acute hepatitis C. But in Mercer County, 27 people recently were diagnosed with hepatitis C - in one week. "It's horrible," county health director Kathy Wides said. "We're seeing 10 to 40 [new cases] a month." Conversely, hepatitis C has gone down 80 percent nationwide since 1989, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What's causing the spike in Mercer County? OxyContin abuse, Wides said. "Most of the hepatitis C is [spread by] sharing sharp straws" when snorting crushed-up pills, she said. That's one reason Wides would love to see a proposed methadone clinic open in Mercer County. The controversial clinics, which have sprouted up across West Virginia over the past two years, sell methadone ( a synthetic opiate drug ) to people who abuse illegal opiates, thereby quelling their cravings for the illegal drugs. Indeed, one of the best ways to corral the hepatitis C virus is "anything communities can do to reduce the risk that people will abuse drugs," state epidemiologist Diane Bixler said. Hepatitis C attacks the liver. The CDC says it is a leading reason for liver transplants. Seventy-five to 85 percent of infected people develop chronic infections, and 70 percent get chronic liver disease from the virus. If left untreated, hepatitis C can be fatal. Unfortunately, it's also very difficult to detect, Bixler said. "It is a silent infection in a lot of folks," she said. The symptoms are pretty generic: fatigue, abdominal pain, nausea. Eighty percent of people with hepatitis C have no symptoms at all. Since 2000, about 2,700 cases of chronic hepatitis C have been identified statewide - a rough estimate, Bixler said. "A lot of cases, we're not going to know about," she said. Twenty-two West Virginia counties haven't reported a single case of hepatitis C in eight years. That doesn't mean it's not there. It just means nobody's found it, Bixler said. In fact, "some of the counties with higher rates may just be doing a better job with surveillance," she said. Hepatitis C is spread by contact with the blood of an infected person. Bixler estimated that 60 percent of cases are spread by sharing drug paraphernalia. "Another 21 percent may be transmitted sexually," she said. "We're talking about high-risk sexual activity." If an infected person has a long-term monogamous partner, the possibility that the partner will catch the disease is extremely slim - about 1 percent. The risk from blood transfusions and organ transplants is just as slim, Bixler said. A hepatitis C-infected mother has a 5 percent chance of passing the disease to her infant. People who try to give themselves tattoos at home also are at risk for hepatitis C, Wides said. Clean tattoo and piercing parlors don't carry that risk. -