The current opioid crisis has proven devastating to users, families and entire communities. It’s also given rise to acute cases of Hepatitis C, a potentially deadly infection whose rate of occurrence has nearly doubled in the United States since 2010. Hepatitis Country investigates this troubling epidemic and traces its origins to a meteoric rise in intravenous drug use.
The film is set in West Virginia where the infection rate is five times higher than any other state in the U.S. For far too many residents in these Bible Belt communities, heroin and other opioids have offered an escape from the stark realities of economic stagnation and crippled morale. The film introduces us to several of these ravaged figures. They’re good people who are helpless in the face of their addiction, and their lack of financial means make them particularly vulnerable to death and disease.
They often don’t have access to proper treatment, and their dilemma is further complicated by an absence of educational resources. Hepatitis C is an insidious beast. Most drug users aren’t even aware that they’ve been infected until they’ve spread it to many others through the sharing of needles.
Throughout the film, the testimonies we hear from users are nothing short of harrowing. High school students inject themselves while on campus. Couples resort to crooked needles in desperation for their next fix. One user claims he can only count on one hand the number of people he knows who don’t have Hepatitis C.
Local health departments work within the community to provide information on the infection, and they distribute clean needles in an attempt to curb its spread. While these needle exchange programs might be controversial among some segments of the community, health workers assert that their success is undeniable. Still, given the stigma attached to drug use and addiction in the U.S., funding remains scarce for the continuation of these programs. A new generation of drugs has proven successful in reversing the threats of the infection, but their prices are being driven to untenable levels by the greed of the pharmaceutical industry.
At times, the scenes depicted in Hepatitis Country resemble those you would find in the most grotesque horror films. But this is real life, and the epidemic portrayed in the film is obliterating far too many communities of promise. The film contends that true change is only possible from a foundation of renewed compassion.