One of the side effects of the opioid epidemic in central New York is the explosion of the number of Hepatitis C cases. Onondaga County now has one of the highest rates of the disease in New York State.
Hepatitis C is a contagious liver disease spread through infected blood. What makes it so insidious, according to Julia LeVere, director of the ACR Health syringe exchange program, is that the Hep C virus can live outside the body for three weeks. So simply using a new syringe during injection drug use doesn’t prevent it.
"Anything associated with injecting drugs, the cottons, the cookers, the wipes, the water, Hep C can live inside that,” LeVere said. “So, if you’re sharing any of those things, you are at risk of Hepatitis C. And a lot of times people don’t understand that."
Hep C can be treated and cured with medication, and treatment as well as free injection supplies are offered through ACR Health. But getting more injection drug users to get tested for the virus is difficult according to ACR Health Director Will Murtaugh.
"It is a challenge to get them to settle for just five minutes and say, can we do a finger prick and test you,” Murtaugh said. “They’re not at a part of their life where they want that to be done.”
In central New York, the number of cases is up 55 percent since 2012, coinciding with the increase in the number of opioid overdose deaths. That number is higher than any other upstate region. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, earlier this year, targeted Hep C for elimination with funds for prevention, testing and treatment programs.