Health officials are warning that Massachusetts is facing an “epidemic” of Hepatitis C virus infections among adolescents and young adults, particularly among those who are injection drug users.
The cases were reported from all areas of the state, occurred predominantly among non-Hispanic whites, and were equally distributed among males and females.
The increase came as overall Hepatitis C infections have dropped or leveled off according to the study by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
From 2002 to 2009, rates of newly reported Hepatitis C infections, confirmed and probable, among those aged 15 to 24 in Massachusetts increased from 65 per 100,000 individuals to 113 per 100,000 individuals.
“The increase in case reports appears to represent an epidemic,” the study said. “Of cases with available risk data, injection drug use (IDU) was the most common risk factor.”
State health officials say one possible cause for the spike in Hepatitis C infections could be the state’s ongoing battle with addiction to opioids like OxyContin and oxycodone.
From 1996 through 2007, the number of fatal overdoses from drugs like heroin and OxyContin among Massachusetts residents jumped from 178 to 637. In 2008, the number of deaths fell slightly to 594.
State epidemiologist Dr. Alfred DeMaria said that those addicted to OxyContin and oxycodone can move onto cheaper and more potent heroin, which can require the use of syringes to inject.
Sharing needles or failing to properly sterilize the equipment needed to prepare heroin for injection can result in the passing on of the Hepatitis C virus, he added.
“We need to do something to reverse this trend,” he said. “We need to better define what the risks are and address those risks.”
He said the state has already taken some steps, including offering Hepatitis C virus testing in HIV testing centers and teaching intravenous drug users how to keep themselves safe from the virus.
While those infected with Hepatitis C don’t show symptoms, left untreated it can lead to liver disease and liver cancer. DeMaria said that while there are treatments for the virus, they are not 100 percent effective in everyone.