Drugs experts call for government backing to stop the spread of hepatitis C


A team of drugs researchers from Imperial College London want prevention campaigns supported by stronger government public health policies to help stop the continuing spread of the hepatitis C virus (HCV) among injecting drug users.

In a study, published in this month's Addiction, researchers conducted qualitative interviews with 59 injecting drug users, and found many were ignorant of the medical and transmission risks of HCV. Additionally, many thought that HCV was difficult to avoid or even inevitable.

Dr. Tim Rhodes, who is a Director of the Centre for Research on Drugs and Health Behaviour at Imperial College London, based at Charing Cross Hospital, and one of the study's authors, comments: "To date there has been a marked absence of targeted health education campaigns specific to HCV, and recently, a lack of national policy emphasis on the reduction of harm related to injecting drug use.

"Now, with as many as 200,000 people infected with HCV in the UK, the vast majority of them injecting drug users, there is an urgent need for targeted health promotion. The government needs to foster safer behaviour among injecting drug users as well as to increase their awareness of the risks of HCV. High profile government sponsored health education targeting injecting drug users about the risks of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s brought about behaviour change. We now need government sponsored and community-based campaigns specifically for HCV."

The study found that many intravenous drug users were not fully aware of the transmission risks of HCV, or its effects on health, and many were still sharing the paraphernalia used in intravenous drug taking, such as spoons and filters, which can harbour HCV if not properly disinfected.

It also found a variety of definitions of 'sharing', with injectors viewing the sharing of needles and syringes to be acceptable in exceptional circumstances and where there was a relationship of trust, or when the circumstances of injecting made obtaining clean needles and syringes difficult, such as when injecting on the street.

Dr. Rhodes added: "Needle and syringe sharing may often go under-reported. Some people are reluctant to discuss sharing given a belief that to do so is to admit to risk and the resulting possibility of blame or shame. With current national drug polices focused on crime and lacking an emphasis on health, there is an urgent need to renew our commitment to health education, especially among injecting drug users. This study shows that younger injectors in particular are at risk of HCV and should be targeted by HCV prevention campaigns."

For the study the researchers conducted interviews with 59 injecting drug users who had injected, most commonly heroin, in the previous four weeks. They aimed to recruit people with an injecting history of six years or less, and no more than half the group infected with HCV. Dr Rhodes and his team are experts in conducting qualitative studies of injecting drug use in the UK, Russia, and advise a number of international bodies including the WHO and UNAIDS.

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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