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Hepatitis C 'Super-Spreaders' Are Key to Prevention
Researchers have identified intravenous drug users as 'super-spreaders' of hepatitis C, but early diagnosis and treatment may help keep them from giving the disease to others.
By Alysha Reid
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THURSDAY Jan. 31, 2013 —Intravenous drug users with hepatitis C are likely to infect around 20 other people with the virus, and about half of those new infections occur within the first two years after a person contracts hepatitis C, according to an Oxford University study published in PLOS Computational Biology.
These so-called super-spreaders of hepatitis C were the subject of a study at Oxford in which researchers collected data from studies on four hepatitis C epidemics in Greece, as well as 100 genetic sequences from frozen plasma samples, and then used a mathematical model to estimate when and how the people in the studies were infected with hepatitis C.
“Working out how many people are likely to be infected by each 'super-spreader' of hepatitis C, as well as how soon they will be infected, has been a puzzle for over 20 years. Our research has resolved this issue and paves the way for a modeling study to show what kind of public health interventions could really make a difference,” said Gkikas Magiorkinis, MD, of Oxford University's Department of Zoology and lead author of the study in a press release.
There is currently no vaccine for hepatitis C, which can spread through unprotected sex or contact with infected blood or bodily fluids, as well as by needle sharing among IV drug users. Sharing and re-using drug needles and syringes is now considered to be a major contributor to rates of hepatitis C.
Researchers think that early diagnosis and treatment of hepatitis C among these super-spreaders could help prevent further transmission of the disease.
This isn’t the first study to focus on the link between the hepatitis C epidemic and drug use. A June 2012 study published in the journalPublic Health Reportsreported that 27 percent of homeless adults in Los Angeles may harbor the virus, with the rate of infection higher among those who injected drugs. In that study researchers concluded that hepatitis c education and testing services were crucial to the prevention of disease spread.
The World Health Organization estimates that 150 million people are chronically infected with the hepatitis C virus worldwide, and more than 350,000 people die of related liver diseases each year, making hep C a major public health challenge.
In the United States, about 3.2 million people are infected with hepatitis C, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A report released by the CDC in February 2012 also found that total deaths from hepatitis C (15,000) now surpass deaths due to HIV (13,000).
The Oxford researchers are confident that their findings will help tackle the spread of hepatitis C. "Using this information we can hopefully soon make a solid argument to support the scaling-up of early diagnosis and antiviral treatment in drug users. Helping these people and stopping the spread of Hepatitis C is our ultimate target,” said Gkikas Magiorkinis, MD, in the press release.
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