At approximately 3 to 4 million patients, hepatitis C virus (HCV) is the most common viral hepatitis in the United States. Patients with mental illness are disproportionately affected by HCV and the management of their disease poses particular challenges.
HCV is commonly transmitted via IV drug use and blood transfusions; transmission through sexual contact is rare. Most patients with HCV are asymptomatic, although some do develop symptoms of acute hepatitis. Most HCV infections become chronic, with a high incidence of liver failure requiring liver transplantation.
Hepatitis refers to inflammation of the liver, which could have various etiologies, including viral infections, alcohol abuse, or autoimmune disease. Viral hepatitis refers to infection from 5 distinct groups of virus, coined A through E.1 This article will focus on chronic HCV (Table 1).
CASE Bipolar disorder, stress, history of IV drug use
Ms. S, age 48, has bipolar I disorder and has been hospitalized 4 times in the past, including once for a suicide attempt. She has 3 children and works as a cashier. Her psychiatric symptoms have been stable on lurasidone, 80 mg/d, and escitalopram, 10 mg/d. Recently, Ms. S has been under more stress at her job. Sometimes she misses doses of her medication, and then becomes more irritable and impulsive. Her husband, noting that she has used IV heroin in the past, comes with her today and is concerned that she is “not acting right.” What is Ms. S’s risk for HCV?
HCV in mental illness
Compared with the general population, HCV is more prevalent among chronically mentally ill persons. In one study, HCV occurred twice as often in men vs women with chronic mental illness.2 Up to 50% of patients with HCV have a history of mental illness and nearly 90% have a history of substance use disorders.3 Among 668 chronically mentally ill patients at 4 public sector clinics, risk factors for HCV were common and included use of injection drugs (>20%), sharing needles (14%), and crack cocaine use (>20%).4 Higher rates of HCV were reported in hospitalized patients with schizophrenia and comorbid psychoactive substance abuse in Japan.5 Because of the high prevalence in this population, it is essential to assess for substance use disorders. Employing a non-judgmental approach with motivational interviewing techniques can be effective.6
Individuals with mental illness should be screened for HCV risk factors, such as unprotected intercourse with high-risk partners and sharing needles used for illicit drug use. Patients frequently underreport these activities. At-risk individuals should undergo laboratory testing for the HIV-1 antibody, hepatitis C antibodies, and hepatitis B antibodies. Mental health providers should counsel patients about risk reduction (eg, avoiding unprotected sexual intercourse and sharing of drug paraphernalia). Educating patients about complications of viral hepatitis, such as liver failure, could be motivation to change risky behaviors.