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Heroin: Sharing Hypodermic Needles

One reason that heroin addicts suffer from so many illnesses is that they, like other intravenous drug addicts, share hypodermic needles, thereby spreading infectious diseases. Shared needles transmit disease so easily that an estimated 90 percent of all intravenous drug users in the United States have some type of infectious disease. In 1996 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared that the sharing of drug needles accounted for "about one-third of all new cases of AIDS in the U.S. each year."A high percentage of addicts who develop AIDS also contract tuberculosis, an infectious disease that can attack lung tissue, lymph glands, or other parts of the body.

Other potentially fatal diseases widely transmitted by the sharing of needles include the hepatitis B virus (HBV) and the hepatitis C virus (HCV), both of which cause serious damage to the liver. "Of those addicts who . . . inject their drugs intravenously with a needle," explains James W. West of the Betty Ford Center, a treatment facility for drug addiction founded by the former First Lady, about 80 percent have hepatitis B and at least 50 percent also contract hepatitis C. There is a virtual epidemic of this viral liver infection among IV drug users. . . . Some who become infected progress to full-blown chronic active hepatitis with eventual cirrhosis, while others develop a chronic carrier state that makes one prone to cancer of the liver. Most, however, will recover from the condition if they stop re-infecting themselves with dirty needles. Additionally, all sexually transmitted diseases, including gonorrhea, syphilis, and herpes, can be contracted through the sharing of needles. The high incidence of prostitution among the addict community contributes even further to this high infection rate among intravenous drug users.

The range of infections that intravenous drug users commonly suffer is not limited to those that can be contracted by sharing infected needles, however. "The very act of injecting foreign substances, in particular heroin," notes Dr. Kelen, "depresses the immunity of the patient or user and so they are open to infections."Among those noncontagious infections that intravenous drug users widely experience are skin infections at the site of injection, which can result in skin ulcers, abscesses, fungal infections, botulism, tetanus, stroke, destruction of lung tissue, and infection of the heart valves and linings. Additionally, long-term intravenous drug use often results in collapsed veins, arthritis, and other related illnesses.

Compounding these and all other heroin-related physical illnesses are the poor dietary and sleeping habits that addicts generally practice.

Further, the ailments that heroin addicts suffer tend to go untreated, because the drug's pain-relieving properties conceal symptoms of real physical illness. Even when addicts are aware of their ailments, they are often afraid to seek medical help for fear of forced withdrawal and incarceration.

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