Hepatitis C hits prisons hard

By BAILEY LASKE
Capital News Service

LANSING —  As the opioid epidemic has spread, so has hepatitis C.  

Cases in Michigan rose faster than the national average from 2015 to 2016, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services.

The effects can be seen throughout Michigan but most prominently in prisons where, according to the National Hepatitis Corrections Network, hepatitis C poses a significant health threat

There are currently about 2,700 reported cases of hepatitis C in Michigan correctional facilities, said Holly Kramer, a communications representative at the Department of Corrections. That’s 7 percent of the inmate population.

And that raises health and financial concerns for employees and administrators.

The contagious disease spreads through blood-to-blood contact and attacks the liver. It spreads most often when people share needles to inject drugs. It can also be spread through tattoo needles, tattoo ink, piercings and sexual activity.

Joe Coyle, manager of viral hepatitis infections at the Department of Health and Human Services, said that because law enforcement agencies target hard drug users, those with addictions often end up in prison.

With even fewer resources for drug use in prison, inmates share needles more often, making hepatitis C easier to spread.

“The liver is considered a non-complaining organ because you don’t feel pain when something is wrong with it,” said Jacqueline Dominguez, executive director of the American Liver Foundation Great Lakes Division. “That is why it is called the silent epidemic.”

Untreated hepatitis C can lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer.

According to the Liver Foundation, once a person develops cirrhosis, scar tissue begins to replace regular liver tissue, blocking blood flow.

For those without insurance, the medicine for hepatitis C can cost as much as  $1,000 per daily pill for an 8-to-12 week treatment. Foundations may help lower the cost, but it can still be a burden, Dominguez said.

Young adults are hit the hardest as cases among those between 18 and 29 rose 473 percent from 2005 to 2016 in Michigan

According to Health and Human Services, 84.2 percent of patients in Michigan in the same age group reported injecting drugs.

Anita Lloyd, the communications director of the Michigan Corrections Organization, said,

“Inmates deserve quality medical care, and that includes hepatitis C treatment. Nourishing food and adequate medical care are two factors that go a long way in maintaining the safety, security and stability of prisons for inmates and staff alike.”

The organization is the union that represents corrections officers.

The Corrections Department’s Kramer said the average cost per prisoner for the treatment o is $25,815. In the past year, about 390 prisoners completed treatment with a 96 percent success rate.

The department receives $16.9 million per year to treat hepatitis C, Kramer said. That enables it t to treat at least 350 inmates, a number that represents fewer than  20 percent of those infected.

Coyle, of Health and Human Services, said prevention is key for protecting the health of prison staff and other inmates but that goal comes with challenges.

“Unfortunately, there is no vaccine for hepatitis C,”  Coyle said.

The best way to avoid its spread is avoiding contact with other people’s blood, he said. And  most effective way for drug users to avoid the disease is through stopping drug use altogether, but that’s not easy for addicts.

The Liver Foundation recommends counseling and rehabilitation. That can lower the spread and the rate of reinfection.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Liver Foundation have resources for those affected by hepatitis C, including educational materials and help finding medical assistance.