Health officials looking to prevent, treat Hepatitis cases in the region
DICKENSON COUNTY, Va. - Southwest Virginia health officials continue to see increases in Hepatitis C linked to drug abuse in the region. That issue leaves community leaders looking at new options to combat the consequences of the epidemic. There continues to be growing concerns that the drug abuse problem in southwest Virginia opens the region up to blood-borne pathogens, like Hepatitis B and C, as well as HIV. Alice Asher is an epidemiologist for the Centers for Disease Control based in Atlanta. She said rural communities are beginning to report increased cases of Hepatitis C, which is an infectious disease transmitted through contact with blood. "We're just seeing communities that really didn't have Hepatitis C are reporting large portions of their populations getting it. Again, it goes back to the opioid use epidemic," Asher said. It has been a continuing problem. In 2015, the Lenowisco Health District, consisting of Lee, Wise, and Scott Counties, a region that only makes up about 1.1 percent of Virginia's population had about 33 percent of the state's recorded Hepatitis B cases. Today, our region continues to record cases at a rate higher than the state average. It is especially concerning to health officials because this area has a shortage of doctors to treat infectious diseases. Dr. Sue Cantrell said there are a few located in the Tri-Cities area or Roanoke Valley, but many people who need the services do not have the transportation to get there. Right now, they are using telemedicine services through the University of Virginia. Cantrell serves as the district health director for Lenowisco and is the acting director for the Cumberland Plateau district. "We really feel like there is a need for primary care doctors to become competent and confident that they can provide good care for people with Hepatitis C," she said. For many of these reasons, health leaders are now trying to create an emergency response plan to be ready should the numbers increase rapidly. One consideration is to institute syringe service programs where those using IV drugs can exchange dirty needles for clean ones. A new law set to go into effect on Saturday makes the option legal in Virginia. "One of the really important components of a well-run syringe service program is offering ongoing screening for Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C and HIV are identified as having those infections can take steps to either get treated and reduce their risk of spreading those infections to other people," Cantrell said. All southwest Virginia counties are eligible for the program.