Kentucky saw a dramatic increase in the rate of hepatitis C infections among women ages 15-44 in recent years, according to a new federal report that offers further evidence of growing problems in the state from intravenous drug use.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released the report this week on the rise in hepatitis C cases across the U.S. and in Kentucky.
Nationwide, the rate of women of childbearing age — defined as 15 through 44 — who tested positive for hepatitis C increased by 22 percent between 2011 and 2014, the year with the latest data, the CDC said.
In Kentucky, the rate of hepatitis C detections more than tripled, from 275 cases per 100,000 women to 862, the CDC report said.
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That was an increase of more than 200 percent, the report said.
The CDC included statistics specific to Kentucky in the report because the state had the highest incidence of acute hepatitis C infections from 2011 through 2014.
The report found that the rate of infants born to women diagnosed with hepatitis C went up 124 percent in Kentucky in that time.
The figures were based on data from a large commercial laboratory called Quest Diagnostics and birth certificates.
The report said that having to rely on data from one lab means the figures might not represent the reality across the country or in Kentucky. The numbers for Kentucky are likely low, the report said.
Official figures for 2015 are not yet available.
However, health department officials said early indications suggest the trend will continue for 2015.
“It’s continuing to increase,” said Scott Lockard, director of the Clark County Health Department and president of the state association of health departments.
Intravenous, or IV, drug use — people using hypodermic needles to inject heroin, prescription narcotics and other drugs — is driving the increase in hepatitis C infections.
That’s because drug users share needles, so one addict with a blood-borne disease can infect several other people.
Lockard said an outbreak of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in a rural Indiana county last year that eventually totaled nearly 200 cases was traced to a single infected person.
One strategy that health officials in Kentucky are pushing to try to curb the increase in hepatitis C cases is needle-exchange programs.
The legislature approved a bill last year under which health departments, with the approval of local governments, can give clean needles to drug users in exchange for dirty ones.
Such programs slow the spread of disease, reduce the number of dirty needles drug users throw away in places where they can hurt other people, and give health workers a chance to refer addicts to treatment, advocates say.
Lockard said the increase in hepatitis C described in the CDC report bolsters the case for needle exchanges.
Health departments in 11 counties have exchange programs, and others are considering starting them.
The state Department for Public Health has encouraged health departments to consider starting needle-exchange programs as one way to work toward reducing the spread of diseases, according to a statement.
There are serious implications for Kentucky and the nation in the spike in blood-borne diseases from IV drug use.
One course of the drug needed to treat hepatitis C costs more than $80,000, and the lifetime cost of treating HIV can be hundreds of thousands of dollars, health officials said.
Hepatitis C is the top cause of expensive liver transplants, according to the CDC.
Most people with hepatitis C don’t have physical symptoms, but of every 100 people infected with the virus, 70 or more will develop chronic liver disease and as many as five will die from cirrhosis or liver cancer, according to to a CDC fact sheet.
Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the CDC, said in a news release that hepatitis C is the only infectious disease with national notification requirements “with an upward trending death rate.”
“Undetected, untreated hepatitis C is a serious threat to a pregnant woman and to her child,” Frieden said.
The agency said people born between 1945 and 1965 should talk with a doctor about being tested for hepatitis C, and that people with risk factors such as IV drug use should be tested.
It also recommends that health care providers assess all pregnant women for risk factors and test those who might be at risk.