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Tracking Down Hepatitis C

Published on 07 October 2014

Philip Wenger, Pharm.D., BCPS, spends a significant amount of time behind bars. When the associate professor of pharmacy practice at St. Louis College of Pharmacy is not teaching in class, he’s working at the Buzz Westfall Justice Center in Clayton, Mo. There, he helps manage medication for more than 1,200 inmates inside the St. Louis County jail.

Wenger recently published research which found that nearly one in every six inmates in the St. Louis County jail (16.4 percent) is infected with the hepatitis C virus. The infection rate is much higher than the general population estimate of 1 to 2 percent. In prison, the number of infected inmates jumps to as much as 40 percent.

“Many jail inmates did not know they were infected,” Wenger says. “Things that can get people incarcerated, especially use of illicit intravenous drugs also put people at higher risk of getting hepatitis C. This research underscores the importance of testing higher-risk individuals for hepatitis C so they can prevent further spread in the community when they return and offer important information about treatment options.”

Hepatitis C is primarily spread through sharing needles and sexual contact.

“Tattoos from unlicensed providers using shared needles, in a prison setting for instance, can put individuals at higher risk for contracting hepatitis C,” Wenger says.

The long-term effects of hepatitis C can lead to cirrhosis, liver failure, cancer, and the need for a transplant.

“From a public health standpoint, it would make sense to screen all inmates when they arrive at jail,” Wenger says. “Testing provides an opportunity to talk about reducing risk factors with inmates no matter the results. I believe early-detection and education could go a long way to help stop the virus from spreading.”

Wenger says current treatments for hepatitis C, while very effective, are also very expensive.

“For every prevented infection, we as a society, save a significant amount of money which would otherwise have gone to treating the virus or its effects,” Wenger says.

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