Hepatitis C spreading among young heroin addicts in NJ
A new study confirms a disturbing trend is getting worse in New Jersey.
A growing number of Millennials screened for opioid drug use are testing positive for hepatitis C, a disease that left untreated can have very serious consequences.
A screening program at Princeton House Behavioral Health found 41 percent of individuals addicted to heroin are also infected with the blood-borne virus.
Hepatitis C is frequently transmitted by drug users who share needles.
“This is a very serious situation because many will go on to chronic liver disease, as well as any extra hepatic manifestations of the disease which could include skin problems or circulatory problems,” said Kathleen Seneca, an advanced practice nurse with ID Care, the group that led the Princeton House study.
She pointed out that “chronic liver disease will turn into fibrosis and then cirrhosis with about a 5 percent risk for liver cancer.”
Seneca said when addicts were told they had hep C, it was a big surprise to them.
“Most persons are unaware of the disease. It is a disease that does not have symptoms. Fatigue may be the most commonly reported symptom.”
She added the trend is “incredibly distressing: these are kids, young adults in their early 20s.”
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Hepatitis C can be easily treated with antiviral medications but many addicts don’t get treatment.
“A lot of drug users have Medicaid so they’re not getting covered for the med because they’re quote-unquote not sick enough because they’re young, they’re healthy, and they don’t really have any [related] conditions,” said Ruth Homer, a social worker at Princeton House.
Another problem, she said, is communication barriers.
“It’s difficult to stay in touch with them because they don’t have cell phones, they don’t really have any consistency in their lives throughout.”
Also, she pointed out, “there are legal issues, they have housing issues, many of them are homeless at 22 years old, they don’t have any family support anymore, so there’s no one there to remind them of an appointment.”
Some patients are indifferent about the news that they have hepatitis C, or indicate they’ll deal with it when they’re no longer addicted to drugs.
“Young folks that barely go to the doctor don’t see why they should go to the doctor now if they don’t have symptoms. They don’t really deal with what may happen down the road,” she said.
You can contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com