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Hepatitis C Virus Survival: Syringe Specifics

Nicole Cutler L.Ac. June 20, 2013

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Proving the virus can survive in a syringe for up to 63 days, research demonstrates three different characteristics that make Hepatitis C transmission viable from a needle.

Hepatitis C is known to be transmitted via blood to blood contact; however, there is still some grey area regarding how long the virus can persist out of the body. Putting a time limit on Hepatitis C’s viability on inanimate surfaces helps quantify how long a contaminated object can transmit this infection. In an attempt to gain clarity on the survivability of Hepatitis C long after the contaminated blood is no longer fresh, a study delves into the virus’s longevity in its most likely vehicle.

Before 1992, when widespread screening of the blood supply began in the United States, Hepatitis C was commonly spread through blood transfusions and organ transplants. Today, most new Hepatitis C infections are a result of the sharing of needles or other drug-injecting equipment. To learn more about Hepatitis C’s ability to survive in the environment most implicated in its spread, Yale researchers investigated whether or not the virus remains viable for long periods in contaminated syringes. What they found cements our regard for Hepatitis C as being a hardy virus – and it provides an explanation for a good percentage of Hepatitis C transmissions.

Upon comparing Hepatitis C with HIV transmission via needles, the following two facts have confounded the medical community:

  1. Hepatitis C transmission occurs 10 times more often than HIV transmission from an accidental needle stick.
  2. Harm reduction measures such as needle exchange programs have dramatically reduced new HIV infections, but have had a lesser effect on Hepatitis C incidence.

Presented in February 2010 at The 17th Conference on Retroviruses & Opportunistic Infections, Elijah Paintsil and colleagues from Yale School of Medicine unveiled their study’s results on Hepatitis C virus survival in a syringe. The Yale researchers tested the hypothesis that the high prevalence of Hepatitis C among injection drug users is due to the fact that the virus remains viable for long periods in contaminated syringes.

To mirror Hepatitis C transmission in the real world, this study included several variables including:

  • Temperature of the syringe
  • Syringe size by volume
  • Type of syringe (detachable vs. permanently attached needle)

Under the right circumstances, Hepatitis C remained viable in a syringe for up to 63 days. Based on the findings from Paintsil and colleagues, there is a quantifiable difference between how long the Hepatitis C virus can survive with all three of these variables. More specifically:

  1. Syringes with detachable needles are far more likely to transmit the virus than those with permanently attached ones.
  2. Hepatitis C’s ability to survive appears to be inversely proportional to temperature; thus, the virus is more likely to survive when syringes are kept at lower temperatures.
  3. Larger volume syringes demonstrated a greater Hepatitis C survival rate than syringes of smaller volume.

Sharing used needles is an obvious means for transmitting Hepatitis C infection. However, sharing is a frequent occurrence in both legal and illegal injection practices. Needle exchange programs aim to stop the sharing, but their overall impact thus far has been to reduce needle sharing – not eliminate it. Based on Paintsil’s research, even sharing a detachable syringe (while using one’s own needle) is readily capable of transmitting Hepatitis C.

We now have a better idea of how incredibly resilient the Hepatitis C virus is. Armed with more specific information about Hepatitis C’s ability to survive in a syringe, fund-allocating politicians, healthcare providers and needle exchange program workers can work to supply enough needles to prevent sharing – or can at least help guide people to make choices that carry less risk for Hepatitis C transmission.

References:

http://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/c/cfaq.htm#, Hepatitis C FAQs for the Public, Retrieved March 3, 2010, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2010.

http://www.hivandhepatitis.com/2010_conference/croi/docs/0223_2010_b.html, Hepatitis C Virus Can Survive in Syringes Up to 2 Months under Favorable Conditions, Liz Highleyman, Retrieved March 3, 2010, hivandhepatitis.com, 2010.

http://www.thebodypro.com/content/news/art55690.html, HCV Survival in Syringes Affected by Syringe Type, Time and Temperature, Elijah Paintsil, MD, FAAP, Retrieved March 4, 2010, The 17th Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections, 2010.

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