Hepatitis C rates rise in pregnant women.

Hepatitis C rates rise in pregnant women.

The Surprising Connection Between the Opioid Crisis and Hepatitis C in Pregnant Women

FRIDAY, July 21, 2023 – In the past two decades, the opioid epidemic has taken a devastating toll on the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans. Now, new research reveals that this crisis has led to a significant increase in the risk of hepatitis C (HCV) among pregnant women, posing serious health risks for both mothers and babies.

Hepatitis C is a liver infection that is primarily spread through blood contact, making injection drug use the main risk factor for contracting the virus. According to researchers, between 1998 and 2018, the prevalence of HCV among pregnant women increased by a staggering 16-fold. This rise in infections has been linked to poor fetal development, fetal distress, and preterm birth.

Most concerning is the exponential increase in HCV risk among pregnant women between the ages of 21 and 30, which shot up more than 3000% over the study period. Lead author Dr. Po-Hung (Victor) Chen, an assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine’s Comprehensive Transplant Center, expresses deep concern about these findings, noting that the actual number of HCV infections among pregnant women may have been underestimated due to lack of routine screening.

Hepatitis C is the most commonly reported chronic blood-borne infection in the United States, and if left untreated, it can lead to liver disease, inflammation, cirrhosis, and even cancer. The link between the opioid crisis and the rise in HCV infections in pregnant women stems from the sharing of needles and syringes, as the virus is spread through blood contact.

The impact of the opioid crisis is evident in the statistics—between 1999 and 2020, more than 564,000 people died from an opioid overdose, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. To investigate the connection between the opioid crisis and HCV, Chen’s team analyzed data from over 70 million women hospitalized between 1998 and 2018 for childbirth or as a result of a miscarriage.

Out of the women tested, over 137,000 were positive for hepatitis C. Most of these infected women were white, under the age of 31, and nearly 3 in 10 reported opioid use. By the end of the study period, the researchers found that 5.8 out of every 1,000 pregnant women tested positive for HCV, representing a 16-fold increase. Furthermore, pregnant women between the ages of 41 and 50 experienced a 300% rise in HCV risk.

Dr. David Bernstein, a professor at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, states that the findings come as no surprise, as there has been a clear increase in HCV prevalence among young women due to the opioid crisis. He emphasizes that without adequately addressing the opioid crisis, more and more young pregnant women will be at risk of transmitting HCV to their babies at birth.

Bernstein estimates that between 3% and 5% of infants born to HCV-infected mothers will also have the disease. However, the good news is that once identified, hepatitis C is highly treatable and curable in over 95% of individuals.

This study serves as a stark reminder that addressing risks such as HCV requires a significant investment of resources in combating the opioid crisis. “The crisis is only getting worse,” says Bernstein. “And that’s unfortunate because this sort of thing is 100% preventable.”

The findings of this research suggest that universal HCV screening during pregnancy is of utmost importance. However, screening alone is not enough. Additional research is needed to establish best practices for connecting mothers and their infants who test positive for HCV to specialists who can provide them with appropriate care and treatment.

The study, led by Dr. Chen, was published in the journal JAMA Network Open on July 21, 2023.

More information The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more information about hepatitis C.

Sources – Po-Hung (Victor) Chen, MD, PhD, assistant professor, medicine, Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, Comprehensive Transplant Center-Liver Transplant, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore. – David Bernstein, MD, professor, medicine, NYU Grossman School of Medicine, and director, ambulatory gastroenterology and hepatology, NYU Langone Long Island, New York City. – JAMA Network Open, July 21, 2023

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The shocking rise in HCV among pregnant women amid the opioid crisis has highlighted the urgent need for action. By addressing the opioid crisis head-on, we have the opportunity to reduce the transmission of HCV from mothers to infants and prevent the needless suffering caused by this preventable disease. Let us invest in the well-being of these women and their children by offering comprehensive screening programs and connecting them to the care and treatment they deserve. Together, we can save lives and build a healthier future for all.