Hepatitis C among drug users in Europe is high but there is cause for optimism

28 July 2016
Drug abuse with people sharing same needle and syringes

Prevalence of hepatitis C (HCV) among people who inject drugs in Europe is very high – in excess of 50% across six countries in the region and an estimated 84% in Portugal. But a new report released by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) for World Hepatitis Day (July 28), shows that a combination of new treatments and prevention interventions gives significant reason for optimism in curbing the HCV epidemic among drug users in the region.

Along with HIV, HCV is considered a significant health burden for people who inject drugs globally. HCV is also often labelled a ‘hidden epidemic’, as many people can be unaware that they are carrying the virus, with symptoms often not arising until a late stage on infection. Without treatment, it can lead to chronic liver disease, cirrhosis, cancer and death.

But recent, improved treatment options have been developed which make it easier to treat HCV among people who inject drugs. The previous treatment option of interferon and ribavirin was poorly tolerated, with severe side effects and long treatment periods (6 to 12 months), meaning that treatment uptake among drug users was poor. New all-oral interferon-free antiviral treatments can now cure most cases of HCV in just 12 weeks.

The report states: “These developments now mean that, probably for the first time, a real opportunity exists to tackle the high prevalence of HCV infection at the level of injecting drug-user communities.”

But as we improve treatment options and work towards increasing access, it is clear that strengthening prevention efforts is a critical to curbing HCV in Europe. The report calls for improved access to harm reduction services, including opioid substitution treatment (OST) and needle and syringe exchange programmes (NSP), of which current coverage across the region is poor.

The Director of the EMCDDA, Alexis Goosdeel said: “Failure to address HCV infection among people who inject drugs will mean considerable costs in the future, both to individuals and to health budgets. Our new report shows, however, that there are now grounds for greater optimism in preventing and treating the disease.”

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