Hepatitis C Rates In Pregnant Women Are Rising, & It Points To A Bigger US Health Crisis

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A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released on Thursday has shown that hepatitis C rates in pregnant women are rising. According to the CDC report, hepatitis C infections increased among pregnant women as much as a staggering 89 percent between the years of 2009 and 2014. While hepatitis C is the most common blood-borne infection in the United States — affecting as many as 3.5 million people in the country — the sharp increase in the number of pregnant women with the virus seems to be linked to another prevalent and rising health crisis in America: the opioid epidemic.

As the World Health Organization notes, hepatitis C is most commonly transmitted via injected drug use and sharing needles. For pregnant mothers infected with hepatitis C, they can also pass the virus to their babies. According to the American Liver Association, a baby has a one in 20 chance of contracting hepatitis C during delivery from its mother; this risk increases if the mother also tests positive for HIV.

Hepatitis C causes inflammation of the liver, which can pose chronic health problems for those with the infection. Symptoms of hepatitis C infection don't always present in the early stages of infection, but it can have potentially life-threatening effects, including cirrhosis and liver cancer.

Two of the most alarming increases in hepatitis C infection rates among pregnant mothers were in the state of West Virginia and certain rural counties in Tennessee. As many as 2 percent of infants were exposed to hepatitis C at birth in West Virginia, while nearly 8 percent of pregnant women were documented to have hepatitis C in several rural Tennessee counties. According to the CDC, West Virginia saw a nearly 17 percent increase in opioid overdose deaths from 2014 to 2015, while Tennessee saw a nearly 14 percent increase.

That more pregnant women are testing positive for hepatitis C reflects broader national data about overall rates of infection among the general U.S. population. New cases of hepatitis C rose over 300 percent from 2010 to 2015, according to a separate report released by the CDC on Thursday. The CDC also noted that wider access to clean needles and Medicaid programs can reduce the number of deaths associated with hepatitis C, as well as transmission overall.

This is especially concerning when you look at the fact that mothers on Medicaid are specifically targeted by "Trumpcare," known officially as the American Health Care Act, which passed the House on May 4. While Trump promised to fight America's opioid epidemic — he's even put together an opioid crisis commission — his promises ring hollow when Trump's plan to repeal and replace Obamacare could have direct and vastly negative impacts on the very services and programs already fighting the opioid epidemic. In addition to targeting moms on Medicaid, the AHCA could strip Medicaid coverage for mental health and substance abuse, affecting as many as 1.3 million Americans, according to The Nation.

As Thursday's CDC report on the rise of hepatitis C in pregnant women shows, the need to combat and treat America's opioid epidemic has reached critical levels. If babies born to mothers with hepatitis C are to stand a chance, it's imperative America has a health care law that will protect their access to care.