Hepatitis and Substance Abuse

Hepatitis and Substance Abuse

Hepatitis Virus

Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver, most commonly caused by a viral infection. There are five main hepatitis viruses, referred to as types A, B, C, D and E. Hepatitis B and C are the most serious and can lead to chronic disease that causes liver cirrhosis and liver cancer. They are typically transmitted though contact with contaminated blood or blood products or sexual conduct.

1 in 12 people worldwide are living with hepatitis B or C. There is no known vaccine for hepatitis C, but there is a safe and effective vaccine for hepatitis B. Hepatitis C can be treated, but hepatitis B cannot. The majority of Hepatitis C positive people are aged between 20 – 39 years of age and over 80 percent of people infected with the hepatitis C virus contracted it from unsafe injecting drug use. Hepatitis is a common disease among intravenous drug users because of the chronic incidence of unsafe needle use.

Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B is the most common liver infection in the world. Over 2 billion people world wide are infected with hepatitis B. Hepatitis B is 50 – 100 times more infectious than HIV. It is a viral diseases that destroys liver cells and can lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer. Unlike HIV, the hepatitis virus can survive outside of the body for at least 7 days during which time the virus can still be contracted by an uninfected person.

The hepatitis virus causes severe inflammation of the liver which has long term complications. The onset of the disease is insidious and often is undiagnosed for a long time. Passing the disease on to others is a serious risk, especially for those who are intravenous drug users. Research has shown that the risk of infection for hepatitis is extremely high in the first year of injection drug use.

Hepatitis C

Over 130 million people are chronically infected with hepatitis C and more than 350 000 people die from hepatitis C related liver disease every year. Chronic hepatitis leads to liver scarring, liver disease and cirrhosis. Hepatitis C does not always progress to chronic hepatitis and there are a number of risk factors that contribute to its progression. This includes alcohol consumption and drug use. Hepatitis C is, however curable for some individuals with the use of antiviral medications.

Hepatitis C infection occurs when blood or other body fluids from an infected person enter the body of an uninfected person. Intravenous drug use is one of the major risk factors for hepatitis C. Other potential risk factors include being infected through contaminated blood transfusions or blood products, needle-stick injuries ans sharing of personal items contaminated with infectious blood. This includes sharing injection drug equipment like tourniquets and cotton filters.


When a person is infected with hepatitis B or C they can have a range of symptoms. For the most part, symptoms for individuals who have been recently diagnosed are often mild or nonexistent. Some symptoms that can be experienced include fatigue, nausea, loss of appetite, dark colored urine and pale bowel movements, pain in upper abdomen and flu-like symptoms. In some cases, individuals may have jaundice which is a yellowing of the skin and eyes. If hepatitis progresses to the chronic stage and develops into cirrhosis or liver cancer serious health impacts will be experienced. These include fatigue, decreased liver function, ascites which is an accumulation of fluid in the abdomen, bruising, enlarged veins and jaundice.

Transmission of Hepatitis B & C

The most common way that the hepatitis virus is transmitted from an infected person to an uninfected person is by sharing intravenous needles and drug equipment. Hepatitis can be contracted through sharing not only needles but infected drug equipment like filters, cooking equipment and tourniquets. Individuals should always use sterilized equipment in every incidence of intravenous injection to reduce the risk of contacting this harmful disease.

Research has shown that around 60 percent of hepatitis C cases in the United States contracted the infection through injecting drug use. In Europe, up to 90 percent of injecting drug users are infected with hepatitis C. Many people who are newly infected with hepatitis do not know they are infected with the virus and may unknowingly pass the infection on to other people.

Transmission of hepatitis between heterosexual couples is not considered a serious risk. However, for men who have sex with men, there is a significant increase in the risk of contracting hepatitis C. Studies have shown that men who are newly infected with the hepatitis C virus are more likely to engage in unprotected sex and potentially pass the virus on to uninfected individuals. Hepatitis B is easily transmitted through unprotected oral, vaginal or anal sex.

Hepatitis is a Serious Public Health Issue

Worldwide, hepatitis infection poses a serious, chronic, long term health problem. Infection rates are very high, especially among young drug users and individuals who engage in high risk activities such as unprotected sex and injecting drug use. One third of the world’s population has been exposed to hepatitis and the virus comes with not only serious health complications but also sufferers are often discriminated against. Without adequate care and support, many people will suffer the long term health problems from the disease. Even with care, there can be an ongoing cost associated with the condition.