Why a North Carolina County Hired a Hepatitis Bridge Counselor
Guilford County, North Carolina is getting a “hepatitis bridge counselor” who will specialize in preventing viral hepatitis, reports the Rhino Times. The position is funded by a $32,000 grant from the North Carolina Division of Public Health.
In recent years, the state, like much of the country, has seen an increase in hepatitis C cases, fueled by the opioid epidemic and injection drug use. In North Carolina, hepatitis C cases have risen dramatically among rural white youth and young adults who have transitioned from taking opioid pills to injecting drugs. In fact, the journal reports, the rate of new diagnoses among 20- to 39-year-olds is 3.3 cases per 100,000 people in that age group, the highest in the state.
The new hepatitis counselor will serve Guilford County, which includes Greensboro, and surrounding central areas of the state. The counselor will oversee prevention messaging, testing and screening programs, and efforts to connect people with hepatitis C to treatment and care.
Hepatitis refers to inflammation of the liver, the body’s filtration system. Untreated, it can lead to liver damage, scarring (cirrhosis), the need for a liver transplant, and death. Hepatitis has many causes, including toxins, chemicals, excess fat and alcohol, and viruses, including hepatitis A virus (HAV), hepatitis B virus (HBV ) and hepatitis C virus (HCV).
According to the Hep Basics section on hepatitis C, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that approximately 3.5 million people in the United States are chronically infected with hepatitis C. New cases of HCV are increasing regularly, largely because of the opioid epidemic. The CDC estimates that there were 41,200 new cases of hepatitis C in 2016.
The good news is that thanks to advances in treatment over the past decade, hepatitis C is curable, usually with daily pills taken for just a few weeks. Unfortunately, medications are not always readily available.
In January 2021, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released the Viral Hepatitis National Strategic Plan for the United States: A Roadmap to Elimination 2021–2025, which sets out five primary goals for the next five years. So, has the United States made any progress over the past year? Earlier this year, researchers and hepatitis advocates launched a partnership called Hep Elimination to assess the country’s progress in its efforts to end viral hepatitis.
Regarding how people contract the virus, the Hep Basics on Hepatitis C Transmission notes:
Hepatitis C (HCV) is transmitted when the blood of an infected person passes into the blood of an uninfected person. Hepatitis C is most easily transmitted through direct blood-to-blood contact, for example:
- Sharing needles and other equipment (accessories) used to inject drugs. Injection drug users (IDUs) who share needles, syringes and injection-related paraphernalia are most at risk of contracting HCV.
- Blood transfusions and organ transplants before July 1992. Widespread screening of the blood supply in the United States began in 1992.
- Sexual contact with someone who has HCV. The risk of becoming infected with hepatitis C through unprotected sex is low, but still possible. The risk of sexual transmission of HCV is higher in HIV-positive people and in men who have sex with men. Having sex with multiple partners, having a sexually transmitted disease, and rough sex can increase the risk of sexual transmission of HCV.
- Having an HCV positive mother. Women infected with hepatitis C have a 6% chance of transmitting the virus to their baby during pregnancy or childbirth. The risk increases significantly if the woman has HIV, hepatitis B, or a high HCV viral load (the amount of HCV in a measure of blood). The risk of hepatitis C transmission is doubled or tripled in women living with HIV. It is unlikely that hepatitis C can be transmitted through breastfeeding or breast milk.