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Officials warn Appalachia is growing closer to an HIV catastrophe in wake of Hepatitis C epidemic

Public health officials are warning that rural Appalachia is growing closer to an HIV catastrophe as the area is experiencing an epidemic of injection drug use and hepatitis C infection.

The rate of hepatitis C infection has increased by 364% in several Appalachia states, including Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Virginia, reports the Center for Disease Control (CDC).

Co-infection of hepatitis C and HIV commonly occurs as both are transmitted via exchange of blood. It’s estimated 50-90% of drug users infected with hepatitis C acquired the virus by sharing needles.

Most recently, Scott County, Indiana experienced an outbreak of HIV with more than 160 testing positive since December. Every person who tested positive also tested positive with hepatitis C.

While some of Kentucky’s largest cities are opening needle exchange programs to combat the threat of HIV and hepatitis C, the state’s rural towns have yet to do so.

Needle exchange programs can be a controversial practice as some believe providing clean syringes to drug users will only cause more abuse. The CDC, American Medical Association (AMA), and National Institutes of Health (NIH) all support needle exchange programs. Advocates are trying to establish programs in each state.

The CDC estimates 4.1 million people in the US are infected with hepatitis C.1,2,3

  1. Galofaro C. Appalachia gripped by hepatitis C epidemic, bracing for HIV. WJHL: 2015.
  2. Koprowski G. ‘Baby Boom’ Hepatitis C Epidemic Blamed on Hippies, Heroin. The Policy & Commentary Blog of the Heartland Institute: 2015.
  3. Harper J. Indiana's HIV Outbreak Leads To Reversal On Needle Exchanges. NPR: 2015.