(BPT) - Hepatitis C (HCV) is often referred to as the 'silent disease' due to silent symptoms that may not appear until years after exposure. In fact, of the more than 2 million Americans who are living with HCV, it is estimated that 40% are unaware of their condition.1
In the past ten years, cases of acute HCV have more than doubled with the opioid epidemic and substance use exacerbating the rise, and COVID-19 further limiting access to care.2-4 If left untreated, HCV can cause serious health problems, including liver damage, scarring of the liver (cirrhosis), liver cancer and even death.1
Fortunately, about 95% of chronic HCV cases can be cured with available treatments, and the virus can be detected through a simple blood test.1,5
This National Recovery Month, opioid addiction advocate Devin Lyall, the Founding Executive Director at Wilkes Recovery Revolution, Dr. Ada Stewart, family physician at Eau Claire Cooperative Health Centers and Gilead Sciences are encouraging testing and treatment for HCV, especially in vulnerable populations where substance use continues to impact communities.
Impact of the Opioid Crisis on HCV in the U.S.
In the United States, injection drug use is the leading cause of HCV transmission and comes with the risk of acquiring other blood-borne diseases such as HIV underscoring the need for awareness and screening among those affected by the opioid addiction crisis.1,6 One person living with HCV who injects drugs is likely to transmit HCV to an estimated 20 other people through sharing equipment used to consume drugs.7 While the Southern and Appalachian regions are most impacted by the opioid crisis and have the highest increase in acute HCV cases, the impact is felt around the country with each community facing their own set of challenges.8
'As someone who experienced opioid addiction and has been cured of hepatitis C, I know first-hand how important it is to raise awareness of the impact of this crisis,' said Devin. 'This is why I'm passionate about helping others in this situation and educating on the connection between the opioid epidemic, especially in vulnerable populations - if we can provide people a safer way to consume drugs that reduces risk of spreading transmittable diseases, like HCV, while working with them on their recovery journey, it not only positively impacts that individual, but our community as a whole.'
HCV Screening & Finding Care
Screening is the only way to know if someone is living with HCV. For this reason, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends every adult be tested for HCV at least once in their lifetime as well as those with risk factors should be screened yearly.1,5 However, during the recent COVID-19 pandemic HCV screening decreased by 25% compared to the year before due to several barriers - housing instability, medical provider availability, opioid addiction and financial concerns - that may have impacted access to treatment and care services.9
'By prioritizing vulnerable populations for HCV care, such as people who are experiencing addiction, we can advance national efforts to screen, treat and cure HCV,' said Dr. Stewart. 'These individuals are often stigmatized or deprioritized for care due to concerns about adherence or potential drug interactions, but the data show this is not the case and that an increase in screening and linkage to care can lead to people being cured of HCV in these communities.'
Moving Toward HCV Elimination
As a nation, there is a need to work together to achieve the shared goal of HCV elimination - bringing together national and state governments, policymakers, public health officials, physicians, and community organizations to ensure vulnerable communities are not left behind or forgotten. Gilead Sciences has implemented several public and private partnerships during National Recovery Month and beyond to facilitate HCV care through efforts such as Gilead Relink as well as the FOCUS, HepConnect and LEGA-C programs with the goal to advance HCV testing and linkage to care.
Visit HepCHope.com to learn more about HCV testing and find support.
1 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2023, February 6). Hepatitis C: By the numbers. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/nchhstp/newsroom/fact-sheets/hepatitis/hepatitis-c-by-the-numbers.html
2 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022a, August 18). 2020 viral hepatitis surveillance report. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/statistics/2020surveillance/index.htm
3 Perlman, D. C., & Jordan, A. E. (2018, April). The syndemic of opioid misuse, overdose, HCV, and HIV: Structural-level causes and interventions. Current HIV/AIDS reports. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5884743/
4 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022, August 19). 2020 viral hepatitis surveillance national profile of viral hepatitis. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/statistics/2020surveillance/introduction/national-profile.htm
5 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, June 26). What to expect when getting tested for hepatitis C. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/hcv/HepatitisCTesting.htm
6 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, April 21). HIV and injection drug use. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/hiv/basics/hiv-transmission/injection-drug-use.html
7 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2023, July 20). Viral hepatitis. National Institutes of Health. https://nida.nih.gov/research-topics/viral-hepatitis
8 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022c, August 30). 2020 rates of acute hepatitis C cases by State. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/statistics/2020surveillance/hepatitis-c/figure-3.3.htm
9 Gamkrelidze A;Handanagic S;Shadaker S;Turdziladze A;Tsereteli M;Getia V;Aslanikashvili A;Surguladze S;Gvinjilia L;Kuchuloria T;Tskhomelidze I;Armstrong PA; (n.d.). The impact of covid-19 pandemic on the 2020 hepatitis C cascade of care in the Republic of Georgia. Public health. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/35305459/