Deciding to get help for an addiction is a brave first step. The situation turns more challenging, however, when seeking treatment comes with news of an HIV and/or hepatitis C diagnosis. Fortunately, there is plenty of help for former addicts living with these diseases.
In some cases, injection drug users learn they are infected with both HIV and hepatitis C at the same time. This serious diagnosis is a catalyst for getting into the right treatment. Here are four things to know about the growing risk of becoming infected by blood-borne diseases and how to get the best care available.
1. People Who Inject Drugs Suffer with Dysfunctional Thinking
Someone who injects drugs usually suffers with a severe addiction complete with irrational thinking and the inability to stop taking drugs without help. When a person is consumed with the need to inject a drug, it doesn’t matter to him if he’s using a clean or dirty needle. Advocates for drug users say it only makes sense to help people where they are right now: communities should offer clean needles to cut down on HIV, hepatitis C and other blood-borne infections. In addition, everyone needs more facts about how to prevent disease transmission and drug use, including the following:
In 2015, a massive outbreak of HIV in one sparsely populated region of Indiana shattered stereotypes about blood-borne diseases among injection drug users. At the height of the outbreak, the Indiana Department of Health counted 181 new cases of HIV, all linked to injection use of the painkiller Opana. More than half of the patients were co-infected with hepatitis C.
Between 2002 and 2013 the number of heroin overdose deaths nearly quadrupled, the CDC reported, with the greatest increases coming in women, people who are privately insured and people with higher incomes. One Boston clinic reported that 70 percent of people who come to the clinic have a primary opioid disorder with a co-occurring illness, such as hepatitis C, sepsis or endocarditis.
Data from the CDC shows cases of hepatitis C spread by injection drug use are up nationwide, particularly among the Appalachian states of Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. From 2006 to 2012, infections spiked 364 percent in those states. Similar findings show increases in Massachusetts, Wisconsin and upstate New York. Although HIV infections remain low in the Appalachian states, the CDC warns HIV infections could soon increase there, too.
2. Hepatitis C is Curable and HIV Manageable with Medication
HIV is a manageable chronic illness thanks to modern highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART). Many people with HIV diagnosed at age 20 can expect to live as long as someone who doesn’t have the disease as long as they are treated effectively and adhere to their medications.
The news is even more positive for hepatitis C. Breakthrough drugs such as Sovaldi and Harvoni actually cure the disease in as little as three months. These treatments are a far cry from old-line treatments such as interferon and ribavirin that brought harsh side effects and proved ineffective for many, especially people co-infected with HIV.
Unfortunately, these new hepatitis C drugs, known as direct-acting, antiviral agents, cost $84,000 or more for a 12-week supply. Many insurance companies won’t cover them for patients currently using drugs or without at least 6 months history in recovery. Injection drug users carry the risk of being re-infected with hepatitis C if they don’t stop using.
3. Look for Treatment that Offers Medical and Mental Health Care
When looking for medical care, the type of treatment is as important as getting treatment. Find a center with at least one board-certified psychiatrist, and get an assessment and clinical advice concerning treatments such as opiate substitution or Vivitrol injections.
Many people plunge into depression when diagnosed with a chronic illness, especially ones that carry a negative stigma, and a center that offers comprehensive support for people newly diagnosed with HIV and/or hepatitis C is imperative. Medications such as Vivitrol help stop drug cravings and make long-term recovery (and prevention of HIV or re-infection of hepatitis C) a realistic goal. Among injection drug users infected with HIV/hepatitis C, proven models of treatment success are possible in an environment of integrated addiction and mental health treatment.
4. Consider the Benefits of Needle Exchange Programs
In the absence of seeking treatment, the CDC recommends that sterile needles, syringes and preparation equipment always be used for each injection. It’s possible to spread the hepatitis C virus by coming into contact with the blood of an infected person on fingers and surfaces, while the HIV virus generally cannot live long outside the body.
Needle exchange programs are scientifically proven as a way to stop the spread of HIV and hepatitis C. They usually offer HIV/hepatitis C tests and offer routes to getting treatment for the addiction as well as the infectious disease or diseases.
While an addicted person doesn’t always see or care how addiction cripples his life, letting a deadly disease go untreated is out of the question. Finding the right treatment program helps you or your loved one begin the journey toward a healthier, sustainable recovery. Call our admissions coordinators today.
 Heitz, David. (2015). Experts say stopping the HIV epidemic will mean taking the outreach to drug injectors to make a difference in Indiana– on social media. I’m Still Josh. Retrieved Apr. 21, 2017 from http://www.imstilljosh.com/social-media-for-poz-slammers-make-it-powerful11513/.
 Indiana State Department of Health. (2015). Indiana State Department of Health Investigates Additional HIV Cases Tied to Southeastern Indiana Outbreak. Retrieved Apr. 21, 2017 from http://www.in.gov/isdh/files/August_28_ISDH__Investigates_Additional_HIV_Cases_Tied_To_Southeastern_Indiana_Outbreak.pdf.
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 Zibbell, J. et al. (2015). Increases in Hepatitis C Virus Infection Related to Injection Drug Use among Persons Aged <30 years – Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia, 2006-2012. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved Apr. 21, 2017 from http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6417a2.htm
 Samji, H. et al. (2013). Closing the Gap: Increases in Life Expectancy Among Treated HIV-Positive Individuals in the United States and Canada. PLOS One. Retrieved Apr. 21, 2017 from http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0081355
 Taylor, L. (2005) Delivering Care to Injection Drug Users Co-infected with HIV and Hepatitis C Virus. Clinical Infectious Diseases. Retrieved Apr. 21, 2017 from http://cid.oxfordjournals.org/content/40/Supplement_5/S355.long
 CDC. (2015). Hepatitis C and Injection Drug Use. Retrieved Apr. 21, 2017 from https://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/HCV/PDFs/FactSheet-PWID.pdf.
 Heitz, David. (2015). Grant May Help Needle Exchange Trailblazer Clear New Paths. Plus. Retrieved Apr. 21, 2017 from http://www.hivplusmag.com/stigma/2015/05/11/grant-may-help-needle-exchange-trailblazer-clear-new-paths
Written by David Heitz