Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, is chairwoman of the Georgia House Health and Human Services Committee. She is shown here chairing a study committee meeting Nov. 16 on barriers to access to health care in Georgia. (PHOTO by Ariel Hart)
Photo: Photo by Ariel Hart
Photo: Photo by Ariel Hart

Opioid epidemic’s ripple effects: Hepatitis C spreading in Georgia

Georgia’s opioid epidemic isn’t just destroying families and local economies, it’s also spreading other diseases.

For the first time in history, Georgia’s level of hepatitis C infection has surpassed 14,000 victims in one year, the state epidemiologist on Thursday told a study committee in the Georgia House of Representatives. And the likely main culprit, she said, was heroin needles.

Health officials can’t interview every patient whose case is reported. But among those who are, the most common risk factor is the hepatitis C victim also reporting intravenous drug use: More than 70 percent report having done it at some time in the past, and more than 60 percent report having done it within the past six months.

“It leads us to believe that the ongoing heroin and opioid epidemics are related to hepatitis C as well,” said the epidemiologist, Dr. Cherie Drenzek.

Drenzek was not prepared to give specifics on methods that might address the problem. She said people are referred for treatment, but she did not have data on how often that happened, what kind of treatment was provided or whether it had been successful. She suggested education on the dangers of intravenous drug use would be important.

State Rep. Sharon Cooper, the committee’s chairwoman, pressed on the issue of treatment, which she noted was wildly expensive compared with most Georgians’ household incomes, at a cost approaching $20,000 or more.

“When we say ‘referring to treatment,’ ” Cooper said, “it would seem that for many people and drug users that would be a big huge barrier.” The committee also heard from an expert in needle exchange programs and discussed ways to destigmatize treatment for infectious diseases in order to persuade more victims to get treated.

The House Study Committee on Georgians’ Barriers to Access to Adequate Health Care has now finished meeting and is tasked by law with considering whether to recommend legislation. Over the course of its meetings it has discussed infectious diseases such as the flu, asthma and HIV, as well as the opioid epidemic and mental health services. Any recommendations are to be issued by Dec. 1.

State Rep. Betty Price, a committee member, also attended this week. In the previous meeting she made nationwide headlines by asking whether HIV patients could legally be quarantined, comments which she said were taken out of context. Following Thursday’s meeting she commented on the need to work toward providing more Georgians health care, and she added that at the moment she didn’t think she had anything else to say.

The Senate has a similar committee that has focused on different barriers and will have its own recommendations.

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