Heroin Research Report
Why does heroin use create special risk for contracting HIV/AIDS and hepatitis B and C?

A woman doctor holding a clip board talking to a woman patient.Photo by ©istock.com/sjenner13

Heroin use increases the risk of being exposed to HIV, viral hepatitis, and other infectious agents through contact with infected blood or body fluids (e.g., semen, saliva) that results from the sharing of syringes and injection paraphernalia that have been used by infected individuals or through unprotected sexual contact with an infected person. Snorting or smoking does not eliminate the risk of infectious disease like hepatitis and HIV/AIDS because people under the influence of drugs still engage in risky sexual and other behaviors that can expose them to these diseases.

People who inject drugs (PWIDs) are the highest-risk group for acquiring hepatitis C (HCV) infection and continue to drive the escalating HCV epidemic: Each PWID infected with HCV is likely to infect 20 other people.21 Of the 30,500 new HCV infections occurring in the United States in 2014, most cases occurred among PWID.22

Hepatitis B (HBV) infection in PWIDs was reported to be as high as 25 percent in the United States in 2014,22 which is particularly disheartening since an effective vaccine that protects against HBV infection is available. There is currently no vaccine available to protect against HCV infection.

Drug use, viral hepatitis and other infectious diseases, mental illnesses, social dysfunctions, and stigma are often co-occurring conditions that affect one another, creating more complex health challenges that require comprehensive treatment plans tailored to meet all of a patient’s needs. For example, NIDA-funded research has found that substance use disorder treatment, along with HIV prevention and community-based outreach programs, can help people who use drugs change the behaviors that put them at risk for contracting HIV and other infectious diseases. They can reduce drug use and drug-related risk behaviors such as needle sharing and unsafe sexual practices and, in turn, reduce the risk of exposure to HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases.