August 29, 1995
Media Contact: Gary Stephenson
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Hepatitis B, a potentially fatal viral liver infection that spreads readily among the general population through unsafe sex, is more easily spread among intravenous drug users by sharing used needles, according to results of a study at The Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health.

"The finding lends clear support to advocates of needle-exchange programs as well as to the distribution of bleach that can be used to disinfect needles," says David Vlahov, Ph.D., associate professor of epidemiology. Vlahov is an author of the paper reporting the results in the August issue of the American Journal of Epidemiology.

"Many people worry only about HIV infection among intravenous drug users, but there is also a very high rate of hepatitis B infection," Vlahov says.

"If we can reduce the spread of HBV (hepatitis B virus) among intravenous drug users, we might also reduce the spread of AIDS and hepatitis C," he says, "because all of these infections are transmitted readily by sharing needles."

The intravenous drug users in the study were part of an ongoing study of HIV infection called the AIDS Link to Intravenous Experience, or ALIVE.

The Hopkins team also found that users infected with hepatitis B were almost 10 times more likely to be infected with hepatitis C virus. And more than half of all intravenous drug users become infected with hepatitis B during their first year of injecting.

"Even with new injection drug users, we found very high rates of hepatitis B virus infection," Vlahov says, "suggesting that it is transmitted rapidly and early among this population."

The Hopkins investigators tested the blood of 2,558 injecting drug users for seromarkers of infection, pieces of the virus or antibodies against the virus.

Eighty percent had at least one hepatitis B seromarker. Evidence of infection was linked with increasing age, increasing time of drug use, injecting drugs at least once daily, and sharing needles during the previous 11 years. In addition, African Americans were 2.6 times more likely to have been infected with HBV than were members of other groups, even if other factors, such as age and length of time being a drug user, were considered.

Other authors of the paper include Orin S. Levine (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta); Jane Koehler (Alameda County Health Care Services Agency, Oakland, Calif.); Sylvia Cohn (Johns Hopkins) and Kenrad E. Nelson (Johns Hopkins).

The study was supported by a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

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