Note: This story appears in the Thursday, April 11 newspaper on Page A1.
McARTHUR — The Vinton County Health Department reports that cases of Hepatitis C in the county have risen considerably over the past few years.
In 2017, the department reported 31 new, confirmed cases of the infection, whereas in 2002, only two cases were reported the entire year.
Last year, the health department had 22 new cases. So far this year, the department has reported one new case.
According to the Center for Disease Control, Ohio contains 11 counties that are considered “at-risk of or experiencing a Hepatitis C outbreak.” Both Vinton and Jackson counties are included in the 11.
Hepatitis C is a bloodborne disease that impacts the functions of the liver, said Vinton County Health Commissioner Dr. Sue Crapes. There is no known cure for the infection, but its symptoms can be treated.
Athens County Health Commissioner Dr. James Gaskell noted treatment for Hepatitis C is rather new and incredibly costly. Three month’s worth of antiviral drug treatment alone can cost $150,000 or more.
He also noted that many people infected with Hepatitis C may need a liver transplant at some point in their lives, sometimes only 20 to 25 years after the initial infection.
Gaskell said IV drug users are a particularly vulnerable population when it comes to bloodborne pathogens, such as Hepatitis A.
Needle exchanges, an approach to combating the spread of some bloodborne infections, have nearly tripled in Ohio over the past few years, according to a report from Cleveland-based health organization Center for Community Solutions.
Before 2016, there were six programs in the entire state.
The Center for Community Solutions states that now needle or syringe exchange programs are in 16 counties: Athens, Brown, Gallia, Muskingum, Darke, Greene, Summit, Lucas, Jefferson, Stark, Hamilton, Montgomery, Marion, Scioto, Franklin and Cuyahoga counties.
Needle exchange programs allow participants to bring in their needles to exchange them with a trained staff member, who then gives them a clean needle for every used one participants turn in. Data is often collected from each visit, and health care workers often link the program participants to other health services, such as addiction counseling.
Athens County’s needle exchange program began in February of 2017 after health officials noticed a steep increase in Hepatitis B and C cases in their community, as well as increases in bacterial and staff infections.
In 2014, there were 98 cases of Hepatitis C reported in Athens County. In a year’s time, that number jumped to 180.
In its first year, the Athens County needle exchange program was located in Glouster. At its Hocking Athens Perry Community Action (HAPCAP) location, Gaskell said the program didn’t garner a lot of traffic. After changing its location to the Athens City-County Health Department in Athens, though, the program began seeing more faces.
Last year, the program averaged 32 visits per Wednesday clinic. Now, Gaskell said, the program averages 40 per clinic, and the program continues to see new visitors each clinic.
In 2018, the program disposed of 36,881 dirty needles. So far in 2019, 9,775 needles have been exchanged.
But the harm-reduction program doesn’t just focus on needles. Gaskell said the program also offers health screenings, immunizations and Deaths Avoided with Naloxone (DAWN) training. Health Recovery Services also provides an addiction coach to participants in the program.
The Ohio Department of Health recently declared a state-wide outbreak of Hepatitis A. Twenty-nine doses of the Hepatitis A vaccine and 23 doses of the Hepatitis B vaccine have been administered through the program so far this year.
In 2018, 98 cases of Hepatitis C were again reported in Athens County. Gaskell said he believes the decrease is reflected in the implementation of the needle exchange.
Vinton County health agencies last year introduced the idea of bringing a harm reduction program to the county.
The Vinton County Health Department and Integrated Services hosted a public forum back in September to hear the community’s concerns and questions about a proposed syringe-exchange program, Vinton County XChange.
Those in attendance at the public forum regarding the exchange vocalized many concerns for the program, reiterating their belief that the program would “enable” drug users. Others were concerned about the possibility of drug activity increasing as a result of the program.
Both agencies went back to the drawing board, but they haven’t necessarily closed the door on the idea of a syringe exchange.
Crapes, who also serves as the medical director of the Vinton County Health Department, noted that the department may revisit the idea of a needle exchange program in the future. In the meantime, the department is spearheading alternative campaigns to address the health concerns surrounding a Hepatitis C outbreak.
To start, many people inside and outside of Vinton County could stop over at the courthouse, the county’s health department or Hopewell Health Center to get Hepatitis C screenings.
These screenings were made possible through Lives Back, a Columbus-based nonprofit, but grant funding ends this month. The health department is looking into partnering with regional groups to continue and expand the Hepatitis C screenings.
“We want to improve the health of the community,” Crapes said, “and not just in respect to diseases. Also with the overall wellness of people in Vinton County.”
The department also offers HIV screenings along with their screenings for various forms of Hepatitis.
Crapes noted that everyone should consider being screened for Hepatitis C, regardless of age or drug-use.
“You just never know,” she said.