Conference Coverage

Hep C screening falling short in neonatal abstinence syndrome infants



SAN DIEGO – A review of care for neonates born with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) found that screening for hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection is low, based on Medicaid data from the state of Kentucky.

“These children are at high risk for HCV, and the screening rate should really be 100%. We think that it is important to get the message out there,” said Michael Smith, MD, of the department of pediatrics at the Duke University, Durham, N.C.

As a result of the opioid epidemic, rates of NAS have been increasing nationwide, but Kentucky is an epicenter, according to Dr. Smith, who collaborated on this study with John Myers, PhD, a researcher in Kentucky’s University of Louisville School of Public Health and Information Services. In Kentucky, the rate of NAS in 2015 was 30 cases per 1,000 live births, which is more than four times the national average of 7 cases per 1,000 live births, according to Dr. Smith, who was a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the University of Louisville before recently moving to Duke.

According to the Kentucky Medicaid data, the rates of NAS are not evenly distributed in the state. Stratifying the incidence rates by eight regions, Dr. Smith reported that 33% of the NAS births in 2016 were in region 8. Although region 8 is a rural Appalachian section on the eastern border of the state, the proportion in this region was more than 50% greater than any other region, including the more populated regions containing Louisville, the largest city, and Lexington, the capital.

Statewide, approximately one in three newborns with NAS were screened for HCV, but the rate was as low as 5% in some areas, and low rates were more common in those counties with the highest rates of opioid use and NAS, Dr. Smith said at an annual scientific meeting on infectious diseases. Although he acknowledged that rates of HCV screening in newborns with NAS appeared to be increasing when 2015 and 2012 data were compared, “there is still a long way to go.”

“Why is this important? There are a couple of reasons. One is that, if you get children into care early, you are more likely to have follow-up,” Dr. Smith said. Follow-up will be important if, as Dr. Smith predicted, HCV therapies become available for children. When providers know which children are infected, treatment can be initiated more efficiently, and this has implications for risk of transmission and, potentially, for outcomes.

At the University of Louisville, children with NAS are typically screened for HCV, HIV, and other transmissible infections that “travel together,” such as syphilis. The evaluation of the Medicaid data suggested that there were no differences in likelihood of HCV testing for sex and race, but Dr. Smith noted that children placed in foster care were significantly more likely to be tested, likely a reflection of processing regulations.

Overall, there are striking differences in the rates of opioid use, rates of NAS, and likelihood of HCV testing in NAS neonates in eastern Appalachian regions of Kentucky and those in regions in the center of the state closer to academic medical centers. The three regions near the University of Louisville, University of Kentucky in Lexington, and the Ohio River border with Cincinnati are known as “the Golden Triangle,” according to Dr. Smith; these regions are where HCV testing rates in neonates with NAS are higher, but testing still is not uniform.

Currently, HCV testing is mandated for adults in several states, but Dr. Smith emphasized that children with NAS are particularly “vulnerable.” He called for policy changes that would require testing in these children and urged HCV screening regardless of whether official policies are established.

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