DECEMBER 7, 2017 / 3:38 PM
The American epidemic of opioid abuse is finally getting the attention it warrants. While policy solutions continue to be inadequate, the decision by President Trump to declare a national opioid emergency has helped to increase discussion about the problem and how the country can solve it. But the conversation also needs to address a dangerous – and largely ignored – interconnected public health crisis wreaking havoc among young Americans.
The problem is that more Americans than ever are injecting opioids and inadvertently infecting themselves with hepatitis C. Shared needles mean shared blood-borne infections – and that’s how the opioid crisis has created a new generation of hepatitis C patients. The number of reported hepatitis C infections nearly tripled from 2010 to 2015, with the virus is spreading at an unprecedented rate among young people under 30 – who are now, for the first time, the most at-risk population for contracting and transmitting hepatitis C.
In the United States, an estimated 3.5 million people, and likely more, are currently living with hepatitis C. The virus kills nearly 20,000 Americans each year – more than HIV and all other infectious diseases combined.
Hepatitis C attacks the liver, causing cirrhosis — or scarring of the liver — and leads to severe liver damage, liver cancer and liver failure. The virus is the leading cause of liver cancer — the fastest-growing cause of cancer mortality in the U.S., which kills twice as many Americans now than it did in the 1980s. Driven by young people who inject drugs, new cases of liver disease have nearly tripled nationwide in just a few years.
Fortunately, we now have an unprecedented chance to eliminate the virus. More and more treatments are available that provide cure rates of over 95 percent, without the debilitating side-effects of older and far less effective hepatitis C therapies. These newer treatments, known as direct-acting antivirals, eliminate the hepatitis C virus from the body, stopping the virus’ attack on the liver and preventing the patient from infecting others.
While some of these treatments made national headlines for their initial $1,000-a-pill sticker prices, that time has passed. Due to increased competition as new treatment options have entered the market over the last three years, the cost of a cure has dropped dramatically. The price will decrease even further as additional alternative cures are approved.
For too many Americans, however, barriers to getting cured remain. While access has increased significantly for the more than 216 million Americans with private insurance and the 53 million who have Medicare, state Medicaid programs are a different story. The more than 70 million low-income Americans covered by Medicaid, including low-income adults, children, pregnant women, seniors, and people with disabilities, continue to face severely limited access to cures for hepatitis C.
TO CONTINUE READING: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-greenwald-hepatitis-commentary/commentary-the-hidden-health-crisis-of-the-opioid-epidemic-idUSKBN1E12XN