As headlines in Tennessee continue to focus on the ravishing effects of opioid use, a “silent killer” could be adding insult to injury for those who are dealing with drug dependency. The disease is hepatitis C, and acute cases of the condition have doubled in Tennessee from 2011 to 2015—right alongside the growing number of opioid users, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Hepatitis C is a virus that’s often contracted through intravenous drug use, thus the correlation with opioid addiction is no surprise. According to the Tennessee Department of Health, there are potentially more than 100,000 Tennesseans living with the deadly virus—many of whom may be unaware of their status. In fact, Many new cases of hepatitis C in Tennessee come from individuals under the age of 30 who report having an opioid dependency.
Additionally, the CDC has stated that certain rural areas of the State, such as Northeast Tennessee, may be particularly vulnerable to a rapid spread of hepatitis C. The uptick in reported cases of hepatitis C has garnered criticism by medical professionals; the care of such individuals is not only an additional burden on the system, but it is believed that the spread could be due to ineffective screening procedures in the state.
Tennessee has yet to enact legislation that requires healthcare providers to offer screening based on guidelines that recommend hepatitis C testing for individuals at risk of infection, such as intravenous drug users. Sheila Williams, a nurse practitioner, has seen the devastating effects of the recent rise in hepatitis C cases first hand.
Williams is calling on Tennessee’s legislature to pass laws requiring healthcare providers to offer screening based on the guidelines. According to Williams, “By requiring healthcare providers to offer screenings based on the guidelines, more individuals [will be] aware of their status.” Other states that have enacted similar requirements have seen a near 50% increase in testing—something that Williams argues is an effective way to reduce the number of hepatitis C cases in Tennessee.
While required screening could ultimately prevent the deadly virus from spreading, opponents cite both time concerns and the perceived stigma associated with hepatitis C as barriers to implementing any required screening program.
Williams responds by pointing to the fact that most major insurance companies, including Medicare and Medicaid, cover the cost of screening. According to Williams, this means that required screening could produce immediate results—with transmission rates dropping significantly within the first few years.
Tennessee has already focused its attention to combating the opioid epidemic through regulation and treatment programs. Now it may be time for the legislature to consider measures aimed at reducing the spread of hepatitis C that include prevention, early detection, and other efforts that could reduce the possibility of exposure.