Like ripples in a pond, every single hepatitis C-infected injection drug user is likely to infect an additional 20 people with this disease. Time is of the essence in stopping this disease spread, since about half of these transmissions happen in the first two years after the drug user’s initial infection. Not surprisingly, these drug users at the center of an uptick in infection cases are called “super-spreaders.” Diagnosing and treating a super-spreader can make a huge impact on the health of a community overall.
Tracking the transmission of a relatively slow-spreading disease – which hepatitis C is, compared to, say, influenza – has rarely been attempted before. A new tracking technique was developed in a joint effort led by Gkikas Magiokinis, M.D. and fellow researchers from Oxford University, University of Athens, and Imperial College. This new tracking method combines epidemiological surveillance and molecular data to reveal, in detail, the transmission of the hepatitis C virus through a population.
Blood transfusions used to be the key way that hepatitis C infected new people; but that was virtually solved in 1992 when routine screening for the hepatitis C virus was introduced. Today, intravenous drug use (due to the sharing of syringes) claims the top spot as the main transmission route for hepatitis C infection.
Dr. Magiokinis and his research team discovered the pattern in which each newly infected drug user spread the infection to 20 more drug users; and then each of those 20 drug users continued the infection chain forward. Diagnosing and treating some (or ideally, of course, all) of these infected individuals halts the exponential growth of a hepatitis C epidemic.
The real take-away from Dr. Magiokinis’ study is how early diagnosis and antiviral treatment of drug users would make a significant dent in the spread of hepatitis C – we could finally turn the corner with this epidemic.
In excess of 3 million Americans are infected with the hepatitis C virus, yet an estimated 1.6 million remain undiagnosed. The virus can remain symptomless for up to 20 years, but eventually is associated with serious health problems, including cirrhosis, liver failure, and liver cancer.
Early diagnosis leads to earlier treatment – and that is associated with the best health outcomes. New treatments now available bring about a meaningful cure for up to 70 percent of those infected with hepatitis C.
Anyone over the age of 40 should be screened for the hepatitis C virus; this advice is even more important to heed for those with risk factors such as:
- IV drug use
- Blood transfusion before 1992
- Unprotected sex with a known hepatitis C-infected person or any questionable sexual encounter
- A needle stick from a potentially unsterile needle
- Nasal drug use
- Anyone who has lived with someone who has hepatitis C
Stephen C Vogt, PharmD
President and CEO