Hepatitis C on rise in Jackson County

The Jackson County Health Department has confirmed more than 50 cases of Hepatitis C in the area, and local officials said there are likely many more.

The increase is being attributed to the ongoing HIV outbreak in southeast Indiana, centered in nearby Scott County. That health emergency has caused many people to seek free HIV testing which has led to more Hepatitis C being diagnosed too, said Lin Mont-gomery, public health coordinator with the Jackson County Health Department.

“This is approximately 10 times the number of cases seen in one month here,” Montgomery said of the disease.

But she isn’t surprised.

“I’m actually surprised we haven’t seen more,” she said. With an aging population of people who may have done drugs in the 1960s and 1970s, there is the opportunity for more cases out there, she added.

“It’s something we’ve been worried about,” she said.

Hepatitis C is a serious infection caused by a virus that attacks the liver, leading to inflammation. It often can result in cirrhosis or scarring of the liver or liver cancer.

The disease is contagious and is spread through sharing needles or syringes to inject drugs or for tattoos or piercing. It can also be spread through being accidentally stuck by a needle contaminated with infected blood, incidents seen mainly in health care and law enforcement jobs.

In the current HIV outbreak, at least 79 cases have been confirmed in five counties — Scott, Jackson, Clark, Perry and Washington. Most of the cases have been traced to people sharing needles used for injecting Opana, a pain medication.

Like HIV, Hepatitis C also can be sexually transmitted, but that is less common, Montgomery said.

Typically, the disease is diagnosed when a person visits the hospital or their doctor with another illness, and routine blood work shows abnormalities with subsequent testing leading to the diagnosis.

The Jackson County Health Department does not offer Hepatitis C or HIV testing and instead refers patients to Bartholomew or Clark county health departments.

Montgomery said it’s very difficult to get a grip on the issue because often cases are not reported.

Patients may exhibit symptoms including fatigue, fever, joint pain, yellowing of the skin or eyes, little or no appetite, dark urine, light-colored stool, nausea, vomiting and stomach pain.

Many people, however, do not exhibit symptoms.

“Reports indicate that many more cases of Hepatitis C exist and simply have not been confirmed or diagnosed,” Montgomery said.

There are both acute and chronic cases currently being diagnosed in this area, she added.

Acute hepatitis is when a person first contracts the virus. If the virus remains in the body for at least six months, it is likely a chronic condition.

According to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, around 3.2 million people in the United States have chronic Hepatitis C.

In 2012, an estimated 21,900 cases of acute Hepatitis C were reported in the U.S. Approximately 75 to 85 percent of people who become infected with Hepatitis C develop a chronic infection.

Although the disease can be prevented by not doing drugs or not sharing needles for drug use, there is no vaccine for Hepatitis C.

Some treatments are available, but they are expensive and not always successful, Montgomery said.

“The best way to prevent getting it is to stop injecting drugs,” she said.

But if a person refuses to quit injecting drugs there are steps they can take to reduce the risk of becoming infected, she added.

Those include using sterile needles and syringes and not sharing such equipment with others, washing hands with soap and water before and after injecting, cleaning the injection site with an alcohol swab or soap and water prior to injecting, not injecting another person and only handling your own injection equipment.

For information about Hepatitis C, talk to a health care professional, call the health department at 812-522-6474 or visit cdc.gov/hepatitis.

At a glance

Who is at risk for Hepatitis C?

Someone who has ever shared syringes or needles for injecting drugs, tattooing or piercing.

Sharing of razors or toothbrushes with someone with Hepatitis C although rare, can also lead to infection.

Someone who received blood, blood products or an organ transplant before 1992.

Someone who may have shared intranasal devices for cocaine use.

Someone exposed to blood on the job, mainly health care and law enforcement.

A child born to a mother who has Hepatitis C.

A person infected with HIV.

Hepatitis C can be sexually transmitted, but is less common.

Symptoms

fatigue, fever, joint pain, yellowing of the skin or eyes, little or no appetite, dark urine, light-colored stool, nausea, vomiting and stomach pain

Steps to take to reduce the risk of becoming infected with Hepatitis C

– Stop using syringes or needles to inject drugs. If you refuse to stop injecting, always use sterile equipment

– Do not share equipment that has already been used.

– Avoid using syringes with detachable needles to reduce the amount of blood remaining in the syringe after injecting

-Thoroughly wash hands with soap and water before and after injecting to remove blood or germs

-Clean injection site with alcohol or soap and water prior to injecting

-Do not inject another person.

-Only handle your own injection equipment.

What should you do if you have Hepatitis C?

– Rest

– Don’t drink alcohol

– Take only medications approved by a doctor

– Eat healthy food

– Get regular check-ups

– Get vaccinated against Hepatitis A and B

– Don’t donate blood, organs or tissue

For more information about Hepatitis C:

Talk to your health care professional, call the health department at 812-522-6474 or visit www.cdc.gov/hepatitis.

Information provided by the Jackson County Health Department

Author photo
January Rutherford is a reporter for The (Seymour) Tribune. She can be reached at jrutherford@tribtown.com or 812-523-7069.