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Drugs use the source of one in four new hepatitis C infections

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Two in five people who have injected illicit drugs in the past year are living with hepatitis C, highlighting the urgent need for prevention and treatment, new Australian research shows.

Researchers from the Kirby Institute at the University of New South Wales and the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC) estimate that 6.1 million people who inject drugs are living with hepatitis C globally, with one-quarter of new infections occurring in people who inject drugs.

It is the first time that researchers have estimated the global, regional, and national numbers of people who inject drugs who are living with hepatitis C.

Lead author, Associate Professor Jason Grebely, said that, in Australia, almost 40,000 people who have recently injected drugs are living with HIV. However, Australia is one of only four countries worldwide with high coverage of both needle and syringe programs and opioid substitution therapies.

“Australia has been an international leader in its response to hepatitis C,” Associate Professor Grebely said.

“The fact that hepatitis C treatments are available for all individuals, without restrictions based on current or previous drug use, means that we are likely to achieve the World Health Organization goal to eliminate hepatitis as a major public health threat by 2030, including among people who inject drugs.”

However, the outlook is not so bright globally, with only one per cent of people who inject drugs living in countries where needle and syringe programs and opioid substitution programs are widely available.

The greatest number of people with hepatitis C who have recently injected drugs live in eastern Europe, east and south- east Asia, and North America, and more than half of them live in just four countries – Russia, the United States, China, and Brazil.

“It is concerning that more than half of all hepatitis C infections among people who have recently injected drugs occur in countries with inadequate coverage of harm reduction services,” Judy Chang, from the International Network of People Who Use Drugs, said.

“The global elimination of hepatitis C as a public health threat will not be achievable unless we improve access to harm reduction services, de-stigmatise drug use and drug users, and improve the overall health of people who use drugs.”

The researchers estimate that about 71 million people world- wide are living with hepatitis C.

The research was published in Addiction on 24 July.