Opioid overdose on the rise.
An increase in Hepatitis C cases.
A new medication to prevent HIV infection.
These issues made the news this year, extending a message to the community in the name of public health.
Hepatitis C infections were found to be on the increase in the Valley, and the Valley AIDS Council went proactive in response.
“It could be similar to other parts of the country, but other parts of the country have better access to medical care so their rates have decreased,” said Rick Prieto, recovery specialist.
The Hepatitis C virus is a contagious liver disease spread primarily through the blood of someone who’s infected. Symptoms include fever, fatigue and nausea. Most people show no symptoms and don’t know they have the disease. It can be fatal if left untreated.
A study conducted in 2016 by the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston School of Public Health sampled blood from 1,331 Cameron County residents. Specifically, they tested for the antibodies associated with Hep C and 30 of those participants tested positive. That’s 2.3 percent, noticeably more than the national average of 1.6 percent.
A number of factors could explain this increase.
“In the Valley, the majority of people can’t afford doctor visits and lab costs,” Prieto said. “That’s a challenge, but we are going to make partnerships to figure that out.”
VAC has received a three-year grant to combat the area’s high rate of Hep C. That grant, Targeted Access to Community Knowledge Linkage to Treatment and Education for HIV/HCV people of color, also includes several other organizations.
The grant is funding several endeavors related to this mission.
There were also some indicators this year that opioid overdose might be increasing.
“In this area there’s no data collection from the hospitals to know for sure,” said Rick Prieto, recovery specialist for Valley AIDS Council.
“I have sources in different hospitals who say they have seen an increase in the last year in ER visits for drug overdoses,” he said.
Former Harlingen Police Chief Jeff Adickes has said numbers have remained the same as far as 911 calls, but certain types of drug overdose are on the rise.
“We have seen an increase in the drug type utilized in accidental or intentional overdoses particularly in 2018 with opiates being slightly on the rise,” he said.
VAC has been distributing Narcan to entities throughout the Valley. Narcan is a medication used to block the effects of opioids, especially in overdose. It can be administered through injection or nasal spray.
Another significant health risk has involved unprotected sex with unsuspecting partners, which is a form of sexual assault.
Specifically it’s called stealthing in which a partner agrees to use a condom and then removes it without the other person knowing. Some say these incidents are on increasing. It can potentially expose someone to HIV exposure.
However, there’s a medication called post-exposure prophylactic, or PEP, that can prevent infection.
But it must be taken in time, said Oscar Lopez, director of education at VAC.
“The medication has to be taken within 72 hours of the incident,” Lopez said. “You call us, we give you an appointment. If you tell us point blank, ‘I may have been exposed to HIV, this happened to me.’”
The medication is available to anyone who may have just been exposed to HIV regardless of circumstance.