Drug abuse itself is high-risk behavior. Not only do drugs increase the risk for occurrences like overdoses, but there are other consequences associated with drug use. Those that engage in drug abuse are commonly also engaging in other high-risk behaviors–one of these behaviors include either contracting or transmitting viral infections. The most notable being Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) or Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). Another viral infection that is common among drug abusers is hepatitis.
These conditions are all viral and they are easily spread through bodily fluids. The main conduit for which these viruses infect drug users are:
- Injection of drugs through dirty needles
- Unprotected sex with a partner who has the infection
The Centers for Disease Control indicates that 1 out of 10 HIV diagnoses is a direct result of drug injections. During the year 2016, over 20% of males contracted HIV from dirty and shared needles used to inject drugs. That same year, over 21% of females contracted HIV in the same way. With those women who contract the virus, should they get pregnant, they can pass the disease to their child at birth and if they nurse, they can also pass it through breast milk.
When one contracts HIV their immune system becomes significantly compromised. The immune cells, the CD4 cells (T cells) which are the body’s way to fight infection, have their numbers lowered which ultimately lowers the body’s natural defenses against illness. After the progression of the virus is complete, AIDS results which is the phase of the infection where the body becomes completely unable to stop any diseases from attacking.
Healthy immune systems have a T cell count that ranges between 500 to 1,600. When an individual is technically diagnosed with AIDS, their T cell count falls below 200. There are over 1 million Americans that live each day with HIV infection and many more, approximately more than 160,000 do not know they are infected. The good news is that HIV infection does not necessarily lead to the final progression of AIDS. While there is no cure, recent technology advances have developed medicines that can successfully halt HIV progression and transmission.
Hepatitis is defined as an inflammation of the liver that transpires through a family of viruses including A, B, C, D, and E.
- Hepatitis A is highly contagious and is often contracted through contaminated food water. The majority of cases recover without significant liver damage.
- Hepatitis B is transmitted through bodily fluids like blood or semen. Infected needles, unprotected sex, and mothers can transmit it to babies at birth. Mild cases can cause short-term illness while more severe cases can result in a chronic infection that can lead to the development of liver cirrhosis or liver cancer. There is a vaccination for hepatitis B.
- Hepatitis C can cause severe liver damage and it often goes undetected because it is associated with few symptoms. It is spread through body fluids.
- Hepatitis D causes extreme swelling in the liver that can lead to long-term damage including scarring as well as cancer. It tends to be rare in the U.S.
- Hepatitis E will not cause chronic infection and it is primarily transmitted through water and food which is contaminated with infected fecal matter. There is no vaccine.
Drug Use And Viral Infections
HIV alone is a difficult and challenging infection to overcome. Drug users who are infected tend to have worsened symptoms and suffer increased progression of the virus particularly in the brain. The combination of drugs with HIV increases brain nerve cell injury which leads to learning and thinking issues. Alcohol abuse in combination with hepatitis will escalate the progression of liver damage.
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