Delaware Public Media

With Delaware's opioid crisis comes a rise in Hepatitis C, liver cancer

Jul 10, 2019

Delaware health officials say the state’s opioid crisis is to blame for a rise in Hepatitis C and liver cancer, though it's only a small percentage of the state's cancer cases.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of reported cases of Hepatitis C tripled nationally between 2005 and 2015. Delaware counted more than 2,500 cases locally when it first started keeping track in 2016.

Melody McCleaf is a Hepatitis C Nurse for Beebe Healthcare and a member of the state’s recently launched Hepatitis C Coalition. She says the number of cases statewide is on the rise and it’s a result of intravenous drug abuse.

“I would say right here in our practice we’re seeing about 80% of the patients do have a history of IV drug abuse either in the past or very recent past,” said McCleaf.

Hepatitis C is the leading cause of liver cancer and transplants in the US, according to the world health organization, and McCleaf says it’s common for the viral infection to become chronic because it doesn’t usually present symptoms early on.

“One of the questions a lot of people will say is why don’t people get tested for Hepatitis C, and it’s because they don’t look sick, they don’t feel sick," said McCleaf. "So even if they’re an IV drug user, they won’t get tested because they don’t feel bad.”

A newly released state report shows Delaware’s rate of liver cancer incidence rose by 75% over a recent 10-year period while the nation’s rate rose 57%.

But the medical director at Christiana Care Health System’s Helen F. Graham Cancer Center Nicholas Petrelli, M.D., FACS, puts that rise in perspective. He points out liver cancer only makes up 2% of all cancer cases in the First State, affecting just over eight people per 100,000.

"The perfect example that we give in oncology is, I can have two patients that are getting chemo therapy, one patient gets cured from the chemo therapy [and] the other patient doesn't--that's a 50% cure rate, right? But it's only two patients," said Petrelli. "So we need to keep this so-called increase in perspective."

Petrelli also makes the point that alcoholism is another common cause of liver cirrhosis which can lead to liver cancer.