IN COLUMBUS, OHIO, A teenage boy who was undergoing treatment for substance use disorder was surprised a couple years ago to learn he’d been infected with hepatitis C. The boy, then 17, was attending private school – and sharing needles with classmates to use heroin, says Dr. Carlos Malvestutto, infectious diseases fellowship program director at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus.
“He had a complete lack of awareness about the risks of contracting hepatitis C and HIV [from sharing needles],” Malvestutto says. “He believed that was something that wouldn’t happen to him and his friends. They’d progressed from using pills [opioids] to sharing needles, and he thought he was safe.”
Fortunately, the teenager hadn’t contracted HIV, and medication cured his hepatitis C infection, Malvestutto says. The 2016 episode illustrates how the nation’s ongoing opioid crisis is creating another long-term public health threat: a surge in HIV and hepatitis C infections. In 2016, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention researchers published findings identifying 220 counties in 26 states nationwide that were most vulnerable for HIV and hepatitis C outbreaks among people who inject drugs, in the context of the opioid epidemic. Tens of thousands of people (if not more) who inject heroin, fentanyl and other opioids are at risk of contracting HIV or hepatitis C from a contaminated syringe.