A growing number of Islanders are becoming infected with hepatitis C due to intravenous drug use – a situation the deputy chief health officer says is one of his biggest concerns.
Rates of new cases of hepatitis C have doubled over the last decade, with an average of 50 new cases a year now being diagnosed in the province.
Dr. Lamont Sweet, deputy chief health officer for P.E.I., says 45 of those 50 cases are caused by intravenous drug use.
“It’s a significant problem,” Sweet said.
And it’s a problem now affecting a younger population than ever before in P.E.I.
“We get many, many cases now that are individuals between 20 and 30 years of age… at least 50 per cent,” Sweet said.
“This is a big change from 15 years ago. I can tell you, 15 years ago, to have someone in their 20s to 30s, it would be probably well less than 10 per cent (of cases).”
Hepatitis C is a blood-borne virus that attacks the liver. It is mainly spread through the sharing of needles. Sweet said it can also be spread by sharing straws when sniffing or snorting drugs.
Eighty-five per cent of those who become infected with hepatitis C will develop chronic, long-term liver infections that will last for the remainder of their lives.
Sweet said the growing rates of this virus will have major impacts on P.E.I.’s health system in the coming years.
“It’s predicted that hepatitis C will become the major reason for liver transplants in the future, probably within a very few years,” he said.
“It’s a tremendous load on the system as far as liver failure is concerned, as far as illness is concerned… treating hepatitis C is very difficult and extremely costly.”
One course of treatment for one patient usually costs at least $10,000, sometimes more, Sweet said.
And this does not factor in the added costs of hospitalization and ongoing care for patients who deal with the lifelong symptoms of this chronic disease.
The province noted the rising rates of hepatitis C and in 2009 began offering a needle exchange program to help curb this concerning trend.
In 2011, approximately 88,000 needles were distributed and over 75,000 returned for safe disposal, according to the 2012 health trends report from P.E.I.’s chief public health office.
In 2012, 112,000 needles were collected.
Sweet says this program has helped to level off the steady increases of hepatitis C the province had been seeing, but the rate of 50 new cases a year is not going down.
“We’re hoping that the needle program is keeping it from going higher, because it was increasing, and in the future, if they are using, that the needle exchange program will help.”
During a recent meeting of the standing committee on health and social development, Deputy Health Minister Michael Mayne drew a direct link to the alarming rates of youth in P.E.I. becoming addicted to prescription drugs and the increasing rates of hepatitis C.
He pointed to statistics showing a jump in the number of intravenous (IV) drug users admitted to the Provincial Addictions Treatment Facility at Mount Herbert this year. Last year, 328 IV drug users were admitted for treatment. So far this year, 462 have been admitted – an increase of 40 per cent.
“IV drug users will report taking on the IV dependency after previously being addicted to opiates,” Mayne told the health committee last week.
“They actually will inject or use opiates and then become an IV drug user, which then shows up in our system through increased prevalence of hepatitis, and from cirrhosis issues, liver issues. These people end up with significant medical conditions… There’s significant costs not only at this point but through the longitudinal treatment of these individuals.”
Sweet says he hopes increased awareness of the risks of contracting this virus through injecting drugs will discourage Islanders from sharing needles or from injecting drugs at all.
“It is one of the biggest concerns I think that we have now as far as public health is concerned,” Sweet said.