Prescription painkiller abuse is largely to blame for a big increase in the rate of hepatitis C among young people in rural areas of four states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Acute hepatitis C infections more than tripled from 2007 to 2012 among young people in rural areas in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.
About 73 percent of those hepatitis C patients said they injected drugs, USA Today reports.
Injecting drugs can spread the hepatitis C virus when people share needles.
"We're in the midst of a national epidemic of hepatitis C," said John Ward, Director of Viral Hepatitis Prevention at the CDC. More than 20,000 Americans die from hepatitis C a year, which is more than the number who die from AIDS, Ward said. He added, "The CDC views hepatitis C as an urgent public health problem."
In March, Indiana Governor Mike Pence declared a public health emergency as the state battles an outbreak of HIV linked to intravenous use of the painkiller Opana.
The governor authorized a short-term program in one county to exchange used needles for sterile ones, to reduce the risk of contaminated needles being shared. Last week, Pence signed a law that extends the program, allowing Indiana localities with health emergencies to begin their own needle exchanges.
About two-thirds of acute hepatitis C infections turn into long-term chronic infections, which can damage the liver and cause liver cancer and death, the article notes. The newly approved drug Sovaldi cures 90 percent of hepatitis C cases, but costs $84,000 for 12 weeks of treatment.