Feb. 11 (UPI) -- Heroin use in the United States has nearly doubled since 2002, as have health problems related to injecting of the drug, a new analysis has revealed.
In findings published Tuesday by the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers from the agency estimated that 0.32 percent of the American population took the illegal drug in 2018, the last year for which data are available, up from 0.17 percent in 2002.
In addition, the percentage of those who inject the drug increased from 0.09 percent of the population in 2002 to 0.17 percent in 2018.
"Our findings indicated there has been a significant increase in the number of people injecting heroin in our country," Nora D. Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, told UPI.
Although these percentages remain relatively small, their rise is significant enough to raise alarm bells in public health circles because injection drug use has been linked with increases in hepatitis C and HIV, which can be passed from person-to-person via contaminated needles, she said.
The findings and analysis were based on responses from more than 800,000 adults who participated in the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration-led National Surveys on Drug Use and Health.
The survey also revealed that the numbers of those who injected heroin increased among both men and women, those between 35 and 49 years of age and non-Hispanic white adults. Growth in injection heroin use was particularly significant in the northeast region of the United States, as well as in the western part of the country.
The authors also noted that the prevalence of heroin use disorder -- abuse or addiction -- more than doubled nationally, from 0.10 percent in 2002 to 0.21 percent in 2018.
The growth in heroin use and addiction has been linked to the ongoing opioid epidemic in the U.S., with those addicted to opioids in some cases resorting to heroin -- an illicit opioid -- when prescription painkillers are not available.
Volkow said the rise in substance abuse disorders, as well as outbreaks of hepatitis C and HIV among injection drug users, are avoidable given that proven treatments are available. Methadone, buprenorphine and naltrexone have all been proved effective at treating opioid addiction, while antivirals can help manage both HIV and hepatitis C, she noted.
Research suggests that people who inject heroin too often don't have access to these treatments, either because they are too expensive or simply not offered in the areas in which they live. In addition, she noted, providing injection-drug users with "safe, clean" needles" has been shown to reduce risk for hepatitis C and HIV in these populations.
"It works, but we're not doing it, and that's what's driving these epidemics," she said.
An earlier version of this story contained incorrect information. The National Surveys on Drug Use and Health survey was conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.