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One critical impact of the nation’s ongoing opioid epidemic is the rapid spread of the hepatitis C virus (HCV) among those who inject drugs. In fact, injection drug use is now the most common way that HCV is transmitted in the United States.

In a majority of cases, HCV becomes a long-term chronic infection that can lead to serious liver damage or liver failure.

New HCV infections nearly tripled between 2010 and 2015. Although much of the burden of chronic hepatitis C infection has fallen on baby boomers (those born between 1945 and 1965), opioid use is rapidly spreading among the younger generation of Americans who inject drugs, including women of childbearing age.

A study found that in states with a high incidence of opioid use between 2006 and 2012, including Kentucky and West Virginia, injection drug use was a major risk factor in more than 70% of new HCV infections in those 30 and under.

“The increase in the number of Americans, particularly younger Americans, becoming infected with hepatitis C as a result of injecting drugs adds another dimension to the national opioid tragedy,” said Dr. Alain Litwin, Vice Chair of Academics and Research in the Department of Medicine at Greenville Health System, and Professor of Medicine of University of South Carolina School of Medicine – Greenville and Clemson University School of Health Research.

Undetected and underreported
Many opioid users may not be aware they are at risk, but using injection drugs even once can expose people to HCV. As hepatitis C infection often has few or no noticeable symptoms, nearly half the people infected with the virus don’t know it. This is one reason why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stated that HCV infections are underreported.

If left untreated, chronic hepatitis C infection can cause liver damage slowly, over time, resulting in long-term health problems.

Creating a sense of urgency
Initial screening for chronic hepatitis C infection is a relatively simple process. It can be accomplished through rapid blood tests such as a finger stick. Healthcare professionals should encourage screening, especially among high-risk groups. That includes those who have or are recovering from opioid dependence and have previously injected drugs.

Healthcare professionals should also convey that it is possible to treat and cure chronic hepatitis C infection, meaning that three months after treatment, the virus can no longer be detected in the blood. This is true even if you have been living with the condition for a number of years. If you or a loved one is among the high-risk group of opioid users who inject drugs, talk to a healthcare provider about hepatitis C screening as soon as possible.