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Heroin and its relationship to HIV and hepatitis

Drug abuse is often linked with a variety of health issues. Heroin use, in particular, is associated with the spread of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C, and research confirms the relationship, showing that those who inject heroin represent a disproportionately high percentage of individuals affected by these viruses.

Like all drug related problems, the spread of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C is complex. The issue is described here.

The extent of the problem

Research in the United States showed that, in 2010, some 53% of new hepatitis C cases were patients who injected illegal drugs, while around 20% of those who injected drugs were infected with hepatitis B. It also revealed that injection drug use was a factor in around a third of all AIDS cases and over half of new HIV infections.

Heroin and HIV/AIDS

Since the HIV/AIDS epidemic was first observed in the 1980s, it has been closely associated with drug use and homosexual practices. HIV is a virus that destroys the immune system and leads to AIDS. It is transmitted between people through blood and blood products. And, because those who use needles during drug abuse represent a significant proportion of HIV/AIDS sufferers, the sharing of dirty needles was long thought be the main factor in the spread of the virus.

While sharing dirty needles is still considered to be a factor, more recently, the theory that unprotected sex is the main factor has been gaining ground. Researchers have found that drug use lowers inhibitions and affects the reasoning processes, meaning that after injecting a drug, the user will be unable to rationalise the consequences of his or her actions. The result is that, under the influence of drugs, individuals are more likely to engage in unsafe sexual practices with strangers and so expose themselves to the risk of contracting HIV.

HIV/AIDS cannot be cured. It can, however, be controlled with medications but these must be taken strictly as instructed. Also, sufferers must avoid environments where they are likely to be exposed to other infections, as their weakened immune system may not be able to cope. Additionally, they must use safe sex and good hygiene to avoid transmitting the virus to others.

In many cases, people with HIV exhibit no symptoms and have no idea that they are infected. There may be some influenza-like symptoms – fever, fatigue, and cough – but these can take a long time to emerge. Swollen lymph nodes are often the earliest indication of HIV infection. Anyone with these symptoms and who has engaged in unprotected sex with a stranger or drug user should go for a professional diagnosis as soon as possible.

Heroin and hepatitis C

Hepatitis C is a dangerous virus that causes the liver to swell, sometimes leading to severe liver damage that might require a transplant or may lead to death. It is caused by the transmission of infected blood and body fluids and is particularly rampant among those who inject illegal drugs. The use of dirty needles appears to be a significant factor in its transmission – more so than in the case of HIV/AIDS – but unprotected sex is also thought to be a factor.

Symptoms of hepatitis C include:

  • Easily becoming fatigued.
  • Feeling nauseous.
  • Joint pain.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Abdominal pain.

These symptoms can be misinterpreted, as they are similar to both influenza symptoms and those experienced during heroin withdrawal. Expert diagnosis is therefore required if these symptoms are present for an extended period.

As with HIV/AIDS, it is important to prevent the spread of the virus. People suffering from hepatitis C must be similarly cautious and must ensure that they adopt good hygiene practices and only engage in protected sex.

Hepatitis C can be treated successfully with drugs but these have unpleasant side effects; new drugs with fewer unpleasant reactions are, however, being developed. While taking these medications, sufferers should avoid alcohol and other drugs that might increase the strain on the liver.

Preventing the problem

To prevent heroin users becoming exposed to the risk of contracting HIV/AIDS or hepatitis C, the best course of action is to seek early treatment to get the individual off heroin. For further information and to get the help you need, get in touch with Life Works Community; our professional staff will be able to give you all the advice you need about this and all drug-related issues.

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To discuss how the Life Works team can help to support individuals and families dealing with addiction and for further information on treatment and rehabilitation programmes, please call: 01483 745 066 or click here to book a FREE ADDICTION ASSESSMENT.

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