‘Off the Charts’ Spike for Hepatitis C

Humboldt County Public Health staffers have told the Board of Supervisors that the county is seeing a “frightening increase” in the Hepatitis C infection rate and a needle exchange program aims to control it.

The report to supervisors described Humboldt County as having one of the highest Hepatitis C rates in the state. With over 7,000 documented cases, at least 5 percent of the county’s population is affected.

The county’s Syringe Services Program and the infection and overdose situations it strives to address were detailed in a presentation at the June 7 supervisors meeting. Deputy Public Health Director Lara Weiss said the needle exchange program uses a harm reduction approach in preventing HIV and other infections in addition to Hepatitis C.

County Public Health Officer Dr. Don Baird presented a graph showing the county’s Hepatitis C rates and noted a spike beginning in 2009. “What was a linear graph has reached the point of an exponential increase,” he continued. “We are looking at a frightening increase, we have, probably, one of the highest Hep C rates in the state — we are five times California’s average.”

The county’s reported rate is probably “less than half of the actual numbers out there,” said Baird.

There is a vaccine for Hepatitis B and “those rates have plummeted,” he continued.

Because any equipment used with intravenous drugs such as syringes, cotton swabs, cookers and tourniquets can be infected, the Syringe Services Program provides “safe injection kits,” said Weiss.

Hepatitis C is “highly infectious and can last outside of the body, alive, for weeks,” she added. “The only way to avoid an infection is to use a clean needle, every time,” she said.

The program began in 2012 and operates out of a mobile outreach van on weekdays, at various county locations. Three additional, non-county programs also offer needle exchange services and Weiss said pharmacies are now selling syringes without prescriptions.

The program also distributes Narcan, the drug that counters overdose effects, and provides referrals to other services.

In 2015, over 86,000 clean syringes were exchanged for used ones, to almost 2,000 people, according to a written report.

Forty-three Narcan kits were distributed, preventing 34 overdoses. Baird said the county had 178 overdoses last year, mostly from prescription opiates mixed with other drugs. He said there were another 22 opiate-related suicides.

During a public comment period, Bill Damiano, the county’s chief probation officer said one of the Proposition 47 penalty reduction law’s “unintended consequences” is removing people from the probation system. “We lost responsibility for a number of addicts in the system that we could direct toward services,” he said.

The county’s disturbing Hepatitis C trends were noted by Board Chair Mark Lovelace. He referred to the written report’s comparison of the county’s 5 percent Hepatitis C infection rate to the state’s 1 percent rate and the nationwide rate of 1.9 percent.

“At 5 percent, are we off the chart at the top among counties nationally?” Lovelace asked.

“Unfortunately, we are off the charts,” Baird replied. He added that the county’s rate is increasing by almost a half-percent of its population per year.

“Five percent of our population has active Hepatitis C,” said Baird.

“That is scary,” Lovelace said.

“Yes, it is — that’s why we’re here,” Baird said.

The county also has 180 cases of HIV infection. Baird said HIV rates usually rise in tandem with Hepatitis C.

Earlier, he said that there is now a 12-week treatment for curing Hepatitis C. Laird added that its success rate is 95 percent, at a cost of $85,000 per treatment.