Feds Freaked by Rising Hep C Rates in Massachusetts

Feds Freaked by Rising Hep C Rates in Massachusetts

By Kenneth Garger and Walter Armstrong 05/10/11

 75% of Massachusetts young people with hepatitis C have injected drugs.

Image: 
Young, restless, and disease-prone.
Photo via offthestreetsproject

Recently, we told you about the harrowing statistics on Hepatitis C among European young people. Now comes official evidence that a growing number of Americans under the age of 25 are also seeking solace in heroin and other injection drugs--but finding disease and addiction instead. That’s the worst-case scenario that worries officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), according to its most recent Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. The CDC said Massachusetts health officials reported a sharp increase in the number of hepatitis C (HCV) infections among the state’s youth aged 15 to 24. The Massachusetts Department of Health first noticed the spike in 2006, ending a decade-long drop in HCV infections, generally attributed to the widespread use of clean needles as part of AIDS prevention campaigns. This alarming data prompted the department to step up surveillance, and the results were not pretty. “During 2002--2009, rates of newly reported HCV infection (confirmed and probable) among persons aged 15--24 years increased from 65 to 113 cases per 100,000 population,” according to the CDC report. And 72% of the cases were among youths who reported current or past injection drug use. Heroin was by far the drug of choice (82%), followed by cocaine (29%). More than three-quarters of the HCV cases were among non-Hispanic whites, with guys and girls equally hit. “The increase…appears to represent an epidemic of HCV infection related to intravenous drug use among new populations of adolescents and young adults in Massachusetts,” state officials wrote.

In an accompanying editorial, the CDC raised concerns that HCV infections related to the use of dirty needles are typically accompanied by increases in HIV infection. In addition, other states are reporting an increase in HCV infections among young people. Law enforcement reports indicate that the average number of new heroin users nationwide has almost doubled each year over the past decade, from 100,000 to 180,000. Many of these initiates are presumed to be under age 25, a cohort in which sharing needles is not uncommon. CDC officials recommend increased surveillance and prevention programs targeted to youth nationwide, including the expansion of clean syringe giveaways. Whether or not the prospect of a nationwide epidemic of HCV—and heroin use—among our nation’s youth will spark a rethink on syringe swaps remains to be seen.