The Perils of the Needle for Native Americans: Hepatitis B and C


Methamphetamine users have several different ways of taking crank.  One method of ingesting meth is intravenous use.  This procedure puts a meth user at a high risk.   The users who inject meth are at risk because of the dangers associated with sharing needles or other equipment.  Drug users who share drug paraphernalia risk being infected with hepatitis C, hepatitis B, and HIV/AIDS.  Intravenous meth users may not only be infected with these non-curable diseases, but they also pass the diseases on to others. This article will explain the dangers associated with Hepatitis B and C.

In Montana, meth use is high among Native Americans and often times associated with the transmission of hepatitis C by intravenous use. Currently, the state of Montana does not have the program funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called the "Needle Exchange Programs."  This program is a preventative program that counters the risks associated with sharing dirty needles by providing the users with clean needles.

Since the state of Montana does not have a program, many Native American intravenous meth users get their needles by stealing from a person in their family who is diabetic and uses insulin needles. 

What is hepatitis?

Hepatitis is an inflammatory condition of the liver, characterized by jaundice and cirrhosis. There are five different types of hepatitis: A, B, C, D & E.

Hepatitis B

One of the most common and serious infectious diseases in the world is hepatitis B. It is 100 times more infectious than the AIDS virus (HIV). The mode of transmission is through infected blood transfusion and other infected body fluids (seminal fluid, vaginal secretions, breast milk, tears, saliva and open sores). The main risk of transmission is blood-to-blood contact through the sharing of needles by drug users, who may not know they are infectious. Health workers are also at risk through accidental needle stick injury.  Women who are carriers may infect their babies before or at birth. In approximately 30-40% of cases, the method of transmission is unknown.

Hepatitis B can be prevented with a safe and effective vaccine.  It is recommended for infants and teenagers and adults at risk for exposure to get vaccinated. It is known as the "Silent Infection" because the carrier of hepatitis B virus (HBV) may not become noticeably sick and may not realize they have the disease.  Many people do not have the symptoms when they are first infected.  The symptoms are similar to having the flu, such as headache, fever, chill, and general weakness.

Hepatitis C

Hepatitis C is another type of hepatitis transmitted largely by blood transfusion or by sharing needles.  Hepatitis C is spread in blood. This means that injecting drugs or tattooing may spread the infection.  Since1990, all blood donations have been tested for hepatitis C; however, before then, blood donations were never screened for hepatitis C. This lack of screening was the cause transmission of the disease through blood transfusions.  Hepatitis C is easily spread by sexual contact, but it does not seem to spread readily from mother to baby. It is also probably not easily spread by the usual family and domestic contact.  In all circumstances, the risk of transmission may be higher if a person has acute hepatitis C. 

There are two types of hepatitis C. The first one is called acute hepatitis C which is a short-lived illness with jaundice (yellow skin and eyes), nausea, and a general feeling of being unwell.  Most people recover completely from this illness.  Chronic hepatitis C infection in most people causes mild damage to their liver.  Many have no symptoms at all, and if they do, they have mild abdominal discomfort, feel tired, or are occasionally nauseated.  Over many years, the virus can cause slow ongoing damage and scarring (cirrhosis) of the liver.  This scarring appears to be more common if there is another cause of liver damage, such as alcohol or hepatitis B infection. The disease progresses to chronic hepatitis in up to 50% of the patients acutely infected. 

Prevention and Treatment of Hepatitis C

There is no vaccine available to prevent hepatitis C infection like there is for hepatitis B.  The people who should be tested for hepatitis C include those who have injected drugs, had unprotected anal sex, received blood transfusions before February 1990, and who have tattoos not professional tattoos.

Click here to return