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Infectious Disease Experts Call for More Focus on Hepatitis C

TUESDAY, Feb. 1 (HealthDay News) -- Among injection drug users, new cases of HIV infection have declined dramatically in the past two decades, but the number of new infections from the hepatitis C virus have dropped only a small amount, a new study reports.

The findings suggest that efforts -- such as needle exchange programs and substance abuse treatment -- to prevent blood-borne transmission of infectious diseases have been successful against HIV but more needs to be done to reduce the transmission of hepatitis C virus (HCV), according to the study's leader, Shruti H. Mehta of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.

The researchers noted that HCV is nearly 10 times more transmissible by sharing needles than HIV. Sharing a needle just once can be enough to transmit HCV.

The study, which looked at infection rates among injection drug users in Baltimore over a 20-year span, found dramatic decreases in new HIV infections: from 5.5 cases per 100 person years in 1988-1989 to two per 100 in 1994-1995, and to zero cases in 1998 and 2005-2008.

Reductions in new HCV infections were not as dramatic: from 22 cases per 100 person years in 1988-1989 to 17.2 per 100 in 1994-1995, to 17.9 in 1998 and to 7.8 in 2005-2008.

Overall, new cases of HCV appeared to decrease only among younger injection drug users who had recently starting using the drugs, the study found.

The results were released online Jan. 31 in advance of publication in the March 1 print issue of the Journal of Infectious Diseases.

The results suggest that "current prevention efforts delay but do not prevent HCV at the population level and will need to be further intensified to reduce risk of HCV infection to the level of HIV," the researchers wrote.

They called for expansion of efforts on both the prevention and the treatment fronts to reduce the reservoir of HCV-infected injection drug users.

More information

The American Academy of Family Physicians has more about hepatitis C.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: Journal of Infectious Diseases, news release, Jan. 31, 2011

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