Young people who grew up after the HIV/AIDS crisis peaked in the mid-1990s are likely not getting educated on the dangers of needle-sharing and hepatitis C, health experts said Wednesday during a meeting of Hampshire Heroin/Opioid Prevention & Education (HOPE).
Hepatitis C is a blood-borne virus that can cause liver cancer, cirrhosis and death. While it has no vaccine, it is curable with proper treatments. Still, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hepatitis C is responsible for more deaths nationally than the combined deaths of 60 other infectious diseases reported to the organization.
Roughly 20 percent of people who contract hepatitis C experience symptoms, said Anthony Osinski, a state epidemiologist. While the other 80 percent may not suffer the symptoms of the disease, they can transmit it to others, according to a report from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.
People also might contract the disease but go for many years without showing symptoms — in some cases, 30 years may pass from infection to tangible consequences, Osinski said.
“It’s really at unprecedented levels,” said Osinski. “And injection is far and away the cause of this epidemic.”
While in the past the majority of people with hepatitis C were middle-aged, an alarming number of young people are now contracting the disease in Massachusetts, Osinski said. The rate of confirmed cases among people aged 15 to 29 increased 27 percent between 2007 and 2014, he said.
Not only are more young people contracting hepatitis C, Osinski said, but the numbers are growing more rapidly than in the past. He also noted that increasing numbers of young people are dying from opioid overdoses statewide.
Carolyn Merriam, a public health nurse in Ware, said she noticed the trend of young people contracting hepatitis C and was immediately concerned about a lack of education surrounding the disease.
“I saw the ages dropping and I put two and two together,” Merriam said. “We have material about the Zika virus, which we probably won’t see here in Massachusetts, but we have nothing to distribute about hepatitis C.”
The stigma surrounding addiction leading to using needles can also be a barrier to treatment for at-risk young people, said Liz Whynott, director of the Tapestry Health needle exchange program in Northampton.
“Forty percent of our clients are under 30,” Whynott said. “A lot of them won’t seek help for drug-related illness until it has gotten to a point where they are in need of hospitalization.”
When it comes to prevention in younger people, Merriam said it is essential to offer free material in schools and other public spaces — such as brochures, banners and posters — where they can be seen.
“With younger kids, you can make more of an impression. Look what we’ve done with smoking,” Merriam said. “If we could get school nurses to distribute age-appropriate tools and teach them about the risks, it would really make a difference.”
Merriam said she is frustrated by the weak efforts of the Department of Public Health to share prevention information with the peoplewho need it the most.
“This kind of thing is a behemoth and it takes forever to turn it around,” Merriam said. “They have the capability. We don’t have the funding. We’re still begging for educational stuff.”
Hampshire HOPE is a coalition working to prevent opioid addiction and overdoses. The group is funded by grants from the city of Northampton and Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan’s office. All its meetings are open to the public.
At the next meeting in September, on a date to be determined, the group will discuss the lacing of fentanyl into heroin supplies, which has contributed to a rash of overdoses nationwide.