Prevalence rates and risk factors for hepatitis C among drug users not in treatment in Malaysia

Balasingam Vicknasingam, Suresh Narayanan, Visweswaran Navaratnam
Drug and Alcohol Review 2009, 28 (4): 447-54

INTRODUCTION AND AIMS: The prevalence of hepatitis C virus (HCV) among heroin dependants in treatment was estimated at 89.9%; however, virtually no information exists on the prevalence or risk behaviour among the larger population of drug users not in treatment. This study assessed the prevalence of HCV and associated risk factors among this group with a view to designing more effective intervention programs.

DESIGN AND METHODS: A cross-sectional survey of 552 not-in-treatment drug users recruited from five key urban centres across peninsular Malaysia with on-site serological testing for HCV and HIV seropositivity was conducted.

RESULTS: HCV prevalence was 65.4% for the overall sample, but higher among injecting drug users (67.1%) relative to non-injecting drug users (30.8%). Bivariate analysis suggested seven risk factors though only sharing injecting paraphernalia and lifetime homosexual/bisexual behaviour remained significant in multivariate analysis.

DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSIONS: With the majority (65.9%) sharing injecting equipment and about the same proportion (65.4%) being HCV positive, the risk of further transmission to new drug users is high. It is imperative that the nascent needle and syringe exchange and condom distribution program and its ancillary services--launched in 2005 to fight HIV--be fine tuned, as a first step, to control HCV. With its greater infectivity and non-symptomatic character, HCV is more insidious. Given the shared risk factors of HCV and HIV, routine screening of drug users for HCV--currently non-existent--should be instituted. This, with other intervention measures, will help detect and control HCV at an earlier stage while also checking the spread of HIV.

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