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Treating Injection Drug Users for Hepatitis C May Prevent Its Spread

Treating Injection Drug Users for Hepatitis C May Prevent Its Spread

How is Hepatitis C Spread?

Hepatitis C is often mistaken to be a sexually transmitted disease (likely because hepatitis B is often spread through sexual intercourse and because hepatitis A can sometimes be transmitted through sexual intercourse as well), however, it is typically not spread through having sex with an infected person. For the Baby Boomer generation (born between 1946-1964), the most likely cause of infection is through the donation of blood, blood products, or organs before 1992, when all blood and organs was tested for the virus. For everyone born after 1964, the two most likely causes of hepatitis C infection are related to the use of needles, which have come into contact with infected blood. This occurs through either being tattooed at an unlicensed facility or through the more common method of transmission, through a needle used and shared for the purposes of IV drugs.

Typically, an IV drug user is focused on the act of getting high and in introducing the drugs into their bodies as quickly as possible. This often leads to the use of needles which are not sterilized and often these needles have been used by others to inject their drugs into their bodies. This experience of sharing needles may occur numerous times with the same needle, either due to the use of one needle being passed from one person to the next in a group or because an individual has used whatever needle they could find, which often happens to be a discarded needle that had been previously used. In either case, the needle contains the blood of the previous user(s) and when someone is infected with the hepatitis C virus (or any other, such as HIV), the virus can be introduced into a previously uninfected person.

In many cases, hepatitis C does not show symptoms in the body for a very long time. This can mean that an infected person can become very sick without knowing it and that they can be sharing their needles with others while mistakenly thinking they are not putting others at risk by exposing them to their blood. In addition, those who are IV drug users are often so focused on their need for the drug that they are unaware or not focused on the risks they are taking, nor are they healthy enough to notice small changes to their bodies that would indicate a symptom of the hepatitis C virus, such as jaundice, exhaustion, or liver pain.

Why Would Treating Injection Drug Users Help?

Initially, treating IV drug users for hepatitis C seems to be a poor idea. The treatment requires regular medication taken on a set schedule, for a period of several months. Many initially believed that this would be highly unlikely due to the focus for IV drug users on obtaining their drug, not on paying attention to taking a pill at a specific time or on regularly attending appointments with their physician. However, research is now beginning to show that treatment for the virus can be successful if it occurs in tandem with treatment for the IV drug addiction. This not only allows the patient to be treated for their addiction, it also allows their body the best chance of a cure without long-term damage from the virus, which can occur if the virus remains in the body untreated.

In addition, by removing IV drug users with hepatitis C from interacting with IV drug users with whom they might otherwise be sharing needles, this protocol can help to prevent others from becoming infected with the virus. In the short term, this treatment method may appear to be expensive, since it is atypical of an IV drug user to have health insurance coverage or the financial ability to pay for the medication and treatments out of pocket. However, over time, this process can help to prevent infections from spreading, it can aid those in need with the proper medical care, and it can provide education and prevention throughout a community.

I Use IV Drugs, How Do I Know If I Have Hepatitis C?

The only way to know whether you have hepatitis C is to get tested. You can contact your local clinic or hospital to find out about testing facilities and to inquire as to which ones offer low cost or no cost tests. It is important to know that, regardless of whether you test negative or if you have been cured from a previous hepatitis C infection, you can become infected again through the continued use of IV drugs and the potentially infected needles typically used during the injection process. If you are not ready to commit to treatment and to sobriety, you can contact your local clinic or hospital and inquire about clean needle programs in your area. If you are ready to begin treatment, that same clinic or hospital can help to direct you to the facilities in your area that can help you.1-6

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

  1. Hellard, M., Sacks‐Davis, R., & Gold, J. (2009). Hepatitis C Treatment for Injection Drug Users: A Review of the Available Evidence. Clinical Infectious Diseases, 49(4), 561-573.
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  5. NIDA NOTES - Facts About Drug Abuse and Hepatitis C. (2000). Retrieved 23 December 2016, from
  6. People who Inject Drugs and Viral Hepatitis | Populations and Settings | Division of Viral Hepatitis | CDC. (2016). Retrieved 23 December 2016, from