Study looks into rising numbers of pregnant women with hepatitis - WSMV News 4

Study looks into rising numbers of pregnant women with hepatitis C

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Health officials have long said that cases of hepatitis C are most common among baby boomers. But with the number of cases growing across the entire population, a doctor at Vanderbilt says his concern is for pregnant women and their children. He says there's a direct link between hepatitis C cases and a problem in Tennessee.

"Babies in my neo-intensive care unit are like a canary in a coal mine for a larger problem we're seeing throughout the United States," said Dr. Stephen Patrick of Vanderbilt.

Working alongside the state health department, Patrick said nationwide the number of hepatitis C cases in pregnant women has doubled. His study shows in Tennessee, one percent of babies were exposed to hepatitis C in 2014. Patrick said numbers change across the state with Campbell County the highest at about eight percent of babies born exposed to hepatitis C.

"In our studies, we found rural counties and counties that are primarily Appalachian counties are disproportionately impacted," he said.

Patrick said there's a number of problems they're facing. For one, he said most people don't even know they're infected. Furthermore, even when a mother's tested, Patrick said their babies don't show the symptoms at birth and need to be followed up to 18 months.

"I could go through the NICU and wouldn't know an infant has hepatitis C," he said. "That's one of the dangers. Out of infants exposed to hepatitis C, about six percent go on to develop the infection, 11 percent if they're also exposed to HIV. Long term, it can lead to liver damage for infants as well."

Why are those the numbers high for Tennessee? Patrick said it all goes back to the state's opioid epidemic. He said Tennessee has the second highest number of opioid prescriptions in the country, and 80 percent of heroin users start with prescription drugs.

"We know the primary way you get hepatitis c is from injection drug use," he said.

Patrick said what's needed is a new focus on access to treatment for opioid abuse, especially in rural communities without as many resources.

"I think we need to step back and understand the needs of pregnant women and infants," said Patrick.

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