US hepatitis C cases soar on spike in heroin use

(Reuters) - U.S. health officials said new cases of hepatitis C rose nearly 300 percent from 2010 to 2015, despite the availability of cures for the liver disease, fueled by a spike in the use of heroin and other injection drugs, according to a report released on Thursday.

In 2015, the national reported rate of hepatitis C was 0.8 per 100,000 persons with nearly 34,000 new infections, according to the report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Access to clean syringes and a limit on Medicaid barriers to curative treatments for hepatitis C can reduce rates of death from the disease and transmission of the virus to others, the CDC said.

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Naloxone/Narcan Heroin antidote
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Naloxone/Narcan Heroin antidote
DENVER, CO - NOVEMBER 18: Denver Fire Department started carrying naloxone, a heroin antidote, in their cars and fire trucks in July, November, 18, 2015. Denver firefighters have administered the drug 87 times while Denver police have given it to people five times.(Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
AURORA, CO - JULY 11: Dawn O'Keefe, an ER nurse at University of Colorado Hospital, has saved lives administering naloxone. Public health officials are promoting the use of the drug naloxone to help save people from opioid overdoses, a life-saving measure few know about in the midst of what health officials are calling an opioid epidemic. (Photo by Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
Staff Photo by Jack Milton, Wednesday, June 5, 2002: Naloxone hydrochloride, the generic form of Narcan, used in treating opiate overdose. (Photo by Jack Milton/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)
This photo taken on Wednesday February 5, 2014 shows a emergency opiate overdose kit at the MaineGeneral Harm Reduction program office in Augusta. -- The cone-shaped adapter is placed in the victim리s nose to turn the liquid naloxone into a spray that helps the person start breathing again. (Photo by Joe Phelan/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)
This photo taken on Wednesday February 5, 2014 shows a emergency opiate overdose kit at the MaineGeneral Harm Reduction program office in Augusta. -- The cone-shaped adapter is placed in the victim리s nose to turn the liquid naloxone into a spray that helps the person start breathing again. (Photo by Joe Phelan/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 27: New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman speaks at a press conference about a new community prevention program for heroin overdoses in which New York City police officers will carry kits with Naloxone, an heroin antidote that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose, on May 27, 2014 in New York City. The New York Police Department is being provided 19,500 kits for officers; the program will begin after officers recieve training. The Naloxone is administered nasally. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
GEORGETOWN, ON - JULY 25 - Betty_Lou is an advocate for the distribution of Naloxone kits (seen here) that can help save a person who has taken an overdose. Betty-Lou Kristy is seen in her Georgetown home with photos of her late son, Pete. Betty-Lou has lost a son and two sisters to prescription drug overdoses. She has since been heavily involved in securing quality addictions treatment. (Richard Lautens/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 16: United States Attorney General Eric Holder addresses the Police Executive Research Forum's National Summit at the Mayflower Hotel April 16, 2014 in Washington, DC. Holder cited the rising number of overdose deaths from heroin and other dangerous opioids while talking about the Justice Department's effort to fight the crisis, including expanding first responders' access to the overdose-reversal drug naloxone. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 27: New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (C) and New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton (L) speak at a press conference about a new community prevention program for heroin overdoses in which New York police officers will carry kits with Naloxone, an heroin antidote that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose, on May 27, 2014 in New York City. The New York Police Department is being provided 19,500 kits for officers; the program will begin after officers receive training. The Naloxone is administered nasally. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
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New treatments for hepatitis C with a cure rate of over 95 percent from Gilead Sciences, AbbVie and other drugmakers have the ability to virtually wipe out the disease, which can lead to cirrhosis, cancer, the need for a liver transplant or death.

But the opioid addiction epidemic appears to be creating tens of thousands of new cases, with unclean needles the leading cause of infections. Some experts say that one reason heroin use has soared is because the illegal drug has become much cheaper than prescription opioid painkillers and due to new limits on dispensing of the addictive legal pain medicines.

The CDC conducted a state-by-state analysis of reported cases of the hepatitis C virus (HCV), as well as a review of laws related to access to clean needles for individuals who inject drugs, and levels of restriction on Medicaid access to treatments.

In 2015, it found HCV rates in 17 states exceeded the national average.

The analysis found only Massachusetts, New Mexico and Washington had both a comprehensive set of laws and a permissive Medicaid treatment policy that could help prevent the spread of HCV and provide treatment services for those who inject drugs.

Twenty-four states had policies that require some period of sobriety to receive HCV treatment through Medicaid, potentially limiting access to cures, compared with 16 states without such restrictions.

Among the best ways of preventing spread of the virus are public health laws that allow access to clean syringes for drug users, such as needle exchange programs, decriminalization of the possession of syringes, and allowing the retail sale of syringes without a prescription.

Eighteen states had no such programs, the report found, while Maine, Nevada and Utah had the most comprehensive laws related to prevention, including syringe exchange without limitations.

(Reporting by Bill Berkrot; Editing by Leslie Adler)

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