Hepatitis C

Mary Meehan

A new report shows Kentucky, Tennessee, and Indiana are among seven states with twice the national rate of Hepatitis C cases.

The Centers for Disease Control reported new cases of Hep C have increased nationwide by nearly 300 percent from 2010 to 2015. Hepatitis C is still associated with more deaths than 60 other diseases.

According to the Kentucky Department for Public Health, the state had the highest rate of new acute Hepatitis C infections from 2008 to 2015, with more than 1,000 cases. The CDC report said intravenous drug use is the primary risk factor for new infections.

Barren River District Health Department

Kentucky ranks first in the U.S. for its rates of Hepatitis-C, a liver disease that can be deadly.  Despite that, only about two dozen Kentucky communities have needle exchange programs that allow intravenous drug users to anonymously swap dirty needles for clean ones at local health departments. 

A 2015 CDC analysis of 220 counties in the nation found 54 Kentucky counties were vulnerable for an outbreak of Hepatitis-C and HIV. 

"That right there tells you that the state as a whole is in terrible shape," said Ben Chandler, President and CEO of The Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.  "Almost a quarter of the counties in the country as a whole are right here in Kentucky."

Flickr/Creative Commons/Eric Molina

Officials at the state and local levels are in discussions about offering hepatitis C testing at all county health departments.

Some local offices offered the tests last year as part of a pilot project, when Kentucky began to see a spike in hepatitis C cases related to intravenous drug use. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in May that Kentucky’s rate of hepatitis C is seven times higher than the national average.

Deputy Commissioner Kraig Humbaugh, with the Kentucky Department of Public Health, says increased screening opportunities would be a way for health and addiction experts to reach out to those who need help.

“Let’s say you are hepatitis C positive—that may influence you to then change your behaviors, so that you’re at less risk of spreading to others. So our goal is to try to get more people tested, to be aware of their status, and linked to treatment options before they develop severe problems.”

Humbaugh says there’s no timeline for having hepatitis C screenings in place at local health departments. But he says his office is receiving positive feedback from county health departments that want to make the screenings available.

Someone infected with hepatitis C can go years, or even decades, without showing symptoms. If untreated, the virus can lead to liver failure and death.

Hepatitis C infection is the number one cause of liver transplants in the U.S.

Statistics show cases of hepatitis C have exploded in northern Kentucky. Due to the increase, the Independent Health Department District is offering free blood testing to anyone concerned about the chronic blood-borne disease that affects the liver. The department is also encouraging people in high-risk groups to get tested.

The area had 23 cases of acute hepatitis C in 2010, 42 in 2011 and 44 in 2012. Officials have said the heroin epidemic in the area is likely a factor in the increase.

Health department spokeswoman Emily Gresham Wherle said anyone who tests positive for the disease will be provided with counseling, education and care options. She says the health department also hopes to get a better understanding of the prevalence of the problem.