Rise in drug addiction brings rise in Hepatitis C infections
ELLIJAY, Ga - The epidemic of prescription drug and heroin abuse has hit rural communities especially hard.
Injection drug users, most of them young people, are sharing needles and syringes and spreading deadly viruses like HIV and Hepatitis C.
In 2015, in the tiny Indiana town of Austin, more than 200 people were infected in an outbreak of HIV.
The Centers for Disease Control has identified 220 U.S. counties the agency considers "high risk" for a similar outbreak.
Four Georgia counties made the list: Fannin, Towns, Murray, and Haralson Counties.
Noah Harper's story illustrates the risks of IV drug use.
He beat a heroin addiction only to learn he's contracted Hepatitis C.-
Sober for 3 and half years now, Harper is starting over, living with along a pristine Ellijay, Georgia creek.
When he was using, Harper says, he could not have appreciated a place like this.
And the 34-year old has learned to appreciate the track mark scar on the inside of his arm, as a reminder of how far he's come.
"My life is a lot better today," Harper says. "It brings back an attitude of gratitude, it reminds me of who I was."
Noah says his life began to unravel when he broke his back dirt-bike racing and was prescribed the painkiller Percocet.
"At first they (the pills) took away the back pain," he says. "And, then I became more and more dependent on them. The pain would leave, but I still needed the pills."
So, he found a now-closed pain clinic in Atlanta.
"They gave me anything I wanted," Harper remembers. "Eventually, it led from Percocets to Oxycontin."
Soon, he says, he was dissolving and injecting pills, to get a faster, more powerful high.
Then the doctor noticed the needle marks.
"And they cut me cold-turkey," he says.
That's when Harper found heroin.
"Heroin was cheaper, it was more accessible," he says. "And, in fact, it was stronger than the pain pills."
He took risks, sharing needles and syringes with strangers, racking up mugshots, alienating his family.
He knew sharing a needle put him at high of contracting a blood-borne viral infection like HIV and Hepatitis C.
"I was so deep in drugs that I didn't care," he says. "I would rinse it out with water and say I'd be fine."
Then on New Year's Day 2014, Harper was arrested in Union County, driving a stolen car.
That was the beginning of the new Noah," he says. "I ended up spending a year in jail."
That's where a blood test revealed he had Hepatitis C.
"It was on my mind every day," he says. "You can't feel any symptoms, but you know it's killing your liver."
After a year behind bars, Harper was accepted into the Appalachian Judicial District's drug court program.
"They gave me a chance," he says. "They put in a lot of rules. I get drug-tested 3 to 4 times a week, I go to NA meetings."
Through the drug court program, he found Good Samaritan Health and Wellness Center, a not-for-profit community clinic in Jasper, that helped him tackle his Hepatitis C infection.
"I was paranoid of it," he says. "It was something that I really, really needed out of my life."
Good Samaritan pharmacist Kelly Hardin they have about a dozen Hepatitis C patients, most former prisoners or recovering I-V drug or their partners, who've gotten sober only to realize they're infected with the blood-borne virus.
"But the key is not to give up, to stick with it," Hardin says. "Know that there is a cure. And know that there is hope. We can save lives."
Because, Hardin says, a 90-day course of a drug like Harvoni can cure Hepatitis C, if you stick with it, and can afford it.
"Typically, the 12-week treatment can run over $100,000," she says.
So, Good Samaritan volunteers help low-income and uninsured clients apply for a patient assistance program available through drug manufacturers like Gilead Pharmaceuticals, which makes Harvoni.
If they qualify for the program, she says, they can get drugs like Harvoni for free.
All they have to do is show up once a month to pick it up.
"And we're seeing compliance, that's the big thing," Hardin says.
Noah finished his Hepatitis C treatment 2 months ago.
He now shows no sign of infection.
"The blood tests came back, and I'm clean," he says.
Clean, and grateful.
"I feel good," Harper says. "I believe in myself today."