According to health officials, Mercer County, West Virginia now has the most per capita hepatitis B cases in the nation and ranks third for the number of hepatitis C infections.
According to the Centers for Disease control both hepatitus B and C affect the liver, both can be deadly, but there is a vaccine for hepatitis B. This version becomes chronic 10 to 15 percent of the time. On the other hand, there is no vaccine for hepatitis C and it becomes a chronic problem about 85 to 90 percent of the time.
Per capita, Mercer County has the highest number of people living with hepatitis B in the country and the third most for hepatitis C. It’s been that way for at least 3 years and Mercer County Public Health Nurse Judy Bolton says the numbers continue to climb.
“People can be infected with B or C and be very very ill,” Bolton said, “or they can be infected with B or C and not have any symptoms at all and they don’t even find out till its years later and maybe it has turned into a chronic condition by that time.”
Bolton says she’s seeing more and more intravenous drug users in the area.
Corporal Alan P. Christian with the West Virginia State Police says most users that ‘shoot up’ in Mercer County are abusing dilaudid, a pain killer that comes in the form of a small pill.
“They’ll hand one needle forever ya know,” Christian said. “I’ve taken them off people and they’re crusty and stuff all over them and then they’re injecting theirselves and then passing it to their friends.”
“That’s where a lot of the problems that we have are coming from. I’ve seen a lot of cities passing out clean needles. I don’t know if we’ve come to that yet I hope not but I don’t know what the answer is.”
Mercer Street in Princeton has a reputation for being a prostitution hang out. Law enforcement agencies say most of the call girls are working to pay for drug habits. Hepatitis is also a sexually transmitted disease.
“I don’t know what kind of practices these girls are using by I would assume that they’re probably not being real safe,” he said.
“A lot of times it’s older gentleman that are going down to pick these girls up because they’re lonely their wives have passed on things of that nature and I’ve talked to few guys and that’s what they target are the older gentleman.”
Nurse Judy Bolton points out it’s not just intravenous drug users spreading this sometimes deadly illness.
“People think that snorting drugs if they don’t use drugs IV they are safe from blood born pathogens which hepatitis B and C is considered a blood born pathogens, however it only takes a microscopic amount of blood to transmit B or C they are very strong viruses.”
Bolton says many patients are shocked to find out they contracted the disease by snorting drugs.
Corporal Christian says abusing drugs nasally is common.
“Police officers have subjects tilt their head back and that’s a way of checking to see if their nose is packed you
know with powder and things of that nature. And unfortunately the IV drug use and snorting is probably running 50/50 I would say. And those that are snorting just haven’t bumped up to intravenous drug use. They are well on their way.”
Bolton says some people older than 18 are especially vulnerable since 20 years ago babies and children were not vaccinated for hepatitis C.
But, she says, it’s mostly a matter of personal responsibility.
“If they avoid risky behaviors whatsoever, we’re talking about snorting or IV drug use if they have a monogamas sexual partner and they don’t have multiple sexual partners then they are not at risk anymore and will greatly reduce the risk of contracting the virus.
The public health nurse says everyone should ask their health care provider about getting the hep B vaccine.