Appalachian States See Surge In Drug-Fueled Hepatitis B Cases

By McCarton Ackerman 02/01/16

The states have also been dealing with increasing rates of hepatitis C infections. 

Appalachian States See Surge In Drug-Fueled Hepatitis B Cases
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Appalachian states have long been battling rising rates of drug abuse, but three of these states have now seen a huge surge in hepatitis B cases sparked by intravenous drug use.

New findings released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia have each seen acute hepatitis B cases rise by 114% between 2009-2013. The majority of new cases come from young, white drug users living in rural areas. Intravenous drug use was the cause in 75% of the individual cases reported from 2010 onward. Those figures are even more alarming because the rates of hepatitis B have flatlined elsewhere in the country.

“I wish I could say this is a surprise, but it’s not,” said Van Ingram, executive director of the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy. “All of the blood-borne pathogens are a concern because of how they spread…Nine in 10 people who abuse prescription pills or heroin are injecting them intravenously, and many are using dirty needles.”

Each of these three states are well aware of the growing rates and have been taking steps to try and correct them. Kentucky has been the most proactive through efforts that include boosting awareness campaigns and education for health care providers. The state legislature also passed a law last year allowing local communities to institute needle exchange programs if they wish to do so. Meanwhile, West Virginia is establishing a pilot hepatitis B vaccination project and working with addiction centers on hepatitis prevention training, while Tennessee is continuing to boost the number of hepatitis B vaccinations available to inmates.

Appalachian states have already been dealing with increasing rates of hepatitis C infections. Cases in Kentucky, West Virginia, Tennessee and Virginia have more than tripled between 2006 and 2012. Kentucky leads the country in acute hepatitis C rates with 4.1 cases for every 100,000 residents, more than six times the national average.

"There's a sense of inevitability about it,” said Dr. Jennifer Havens, an epidemiologist at the University of Kentucky's Center on Drug and Alcohol Research. “Some say, 'I'm surprised it took me this long.'"

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.