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Heroin Epidemic Powering Hepatitis C Surge In US

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New CDC data shows that new hepatitis C infections have increased threefold since 2010

New cases of hepatitis C infections almost tripled between 2010 and 2015, according to a new report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The surge of hepatitis C cases appears to be driven by the nationwide heroin epidemic, and the most common way the virus spreads is by shared or dirty needles used to inject opioids like heroin, the CDC said in the report issued Thursday.

Confirmed cases of hepatitis C increased around the United States from 850 in 2010 to 2,436 in 2015 -- about a 286 percent increase. Because the disease can be hard to detect, the CDC estimates that the true number of Americans living with hepatitis C is far greater, about 34,000 in 2015.

That same year, about 20,000 deaths in the U.S. were linked to the virus. Worldwide, around 71 million people suffer from chronic hepatitis C infection, according to the World Health Organization. The diseases causes the deaths of some 400,000 people across the globe every year.

Symptoms of the disease can range massively from case to case, with some of those infected with hepatitis C experiencing only a mild illness lasting a few weeks to others suffering from a chronic sickness that lasts a lifetime. Hepatitis C often leads to cirrhosis and liver cancer; together, these two conditions are responsible for most deaths connected to hepatitis C.

Alarmingly, a study released alongside the CDC report finds that heroin use is also driving a sharp increase of hepatitis C cases among pregnant women, particularly in rural areas.

The number of births where a hepatitis C infection was present in the mother at the time of delivery rose 89 percent between 2009 and 2014, from 1.8 to 3.4 per 1,000 live births, according to a study by researchers at Vanderbilt University published Thursday by the CDC.

Hepatitis C is transmitted from mother to child in about 6 percent of cases.

"We have seen a dramatic increase in opioid use in pregnancy and in the number of infants having drug withdrawal," said lead author Stephen Patrick in a statement. "Taken together, this suggests that efforts targeted at preventing and expanding treatment for opioid use disorder may help mitigate some of the increases we see.”

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