Deadly Disease Goes Untreated in State Prisons

Nov 20, 2018

The head of Virginia’s prison system will be asking the General Assembly for additional money this year to stop the spread of a deadly epidemic behind bars.  40-60% of inmates could be infected.

Law Professor George Rutherglen (right) talks with Dr. Rebecca Dillingham about an epidemic of hepatitis-C in Virginia prisons.
Credit Sandy Hausman

Only one percent of Americans have Hepatitis-C, but in this and other prisons the rate could be as high as 60%.  The disease causes symptoms like fatigue and joint pain – easily mistaken for other things, but over time it can kill.  Fortunately, it can also be cured according to Dr. Rebecca Dillingham, a professor at UVA and an expert on infectious disease

“In some cases a single pill can be taken once a day for 8 or 10 weeks that has over a 95% cure rate with very few side effects,” she says.

The cost is high -- $40,000-$80,000 depending on which drug is appropriate, but UVA law professor George Rutherglen says the state may be penny wise and pound foolish if it doesn’t pay up.

“If Hepatitis-C proceeds to cirrhosis or liver cancer, it is very, very expensive to treat the inmates, and in the meantime there’s a risk of spreading infection at the prison,” he explains.

Rutherglen recently sued for treatment of a prisoner at Buckingham, and the state agreed to start therapy, but more than 26-hundred inmates have been diagnosed and it’s not clear how many of them are getting medication.  The state says it’s doing its best.

“They have represented to the court that they are doubling the capacity of the clinic at VCU.  Their ambition is eventually to treat everyone.”

Not all prisoners have been tested, and Dillingham says there could be many additional cases, since Hep-C – which is spread by sharing needles and straws – is strongly associated with the opioid epidemic. 

“If you look at the Virginia Department of Health Hepatitis report and look at the maps overlaying numbers of opioid prescriptions written, numbers of overdose deaths and numbers of cases of Hepatitis-C they overlay perfectly.”  

The disease is also more prevalent in people born between 1945 and 1965 when doctors were not aware of the risk Hep-C posed.  That meant blood products, medical instruments and equipment used to produce tattoos could well have been contaminated.