Hepatitis C rising in Kansas City with opioid epidemic, ReDiscover says

Posted at 6:27 PM, May 17, 2017
and last updated 2017-05-18 09:45:44-04

The opioid epidemic in the United States is bringing about another serious problem: Hepatitis C.

New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows new Hep C infections almost tripled in five years. New infections rose from 850 in 2010 to 2,436 in 2015. 

It's taking a toll in the Kansas City metro, where ReDiscover says one in five people who walk into its opioid treatment clinic will be diagnosed with Hep C.

Lexy Duffel calls herself an old drug addict but is now using her story to help educate others.

"I remember the exact night I got Hep C," Duffel said.

Her drug addiction was so powerful she picked up a heroin needle her infected husband had just used.

"The next minute I'm looking at the syringe thinking, I want that so bad, and I know if I use his needle, it was the only one, I would get Hep C," she said. "I remember as I was pushing it in my arm I'm going, I'm sick. I'm going to be really sick. And I was."

Duffel is one of millions of Americans who have Hepatitis C, a disease that destroys the liver.

The face of this disease is getting younger and younger.

Sarita Wise, a nurse at ReDiscover's drug treatment clinic, says the opioid epidemic is to blame.

Since January, out of 22 new clients at the clinic, 16 tested positive for Hep C.

The CDC says the highest rates of Hep C are among young people who inject drugs, and the same group accounts for 75 percent of new Hep C cases a year.

The disease is highly contagious.

"Dry blood, equipment used for making drugs, whether it's snorting it or with straws, tourniquets, cotton balls. If they're not aware there's even small amounts of blood on it, they can infect themselves that way," Wise said.

Many of the patients that go to drug treatment clinics may be low-income and don't go to a primary care physician regularly, so the disease goes undetected. Wise says that's when it does real damage.

"I think that's why we're starting to see the trend in the opioid treatment programs because we're doing that initial screening up-front. That's also to educate them about why they should continue to come to our programs, so they won't engage in risky behaviors," Wise said.

Duffel says she's not on any treatment programs for Hep C, but she's not drinking or doing drugs anymore.

"You have to give your all. Just like you did with drugs, give your all toward your recovery," she said.

ReDiscover says while it's good news that young people are being diagnosed early on, many people, like Duffel, can't afford the Hep C drug treatments. They can cost tens of thousands of dollars, but can also cure the disease.

ReDiscover has to rely heavily on federal grants that can help people get access.