Philly health department finds youth hep-C cases fueled by opioid epidemic

Heroin, needle and pills.
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Newly released statistics from the Philadelphia Health Department indicate that a rise in hepatitis C infections among the city's youth is a direct consequence of the region's deepening opioid crisis.

The chronic viral infection, typically spread through the exchange of hypodermic needles and other injection equipment, was newly found in 1,161 residents between the ages of 18-35 in 2016. That was nearly double the number reported in 2010, and a full 81 percent of those interviewed in that age group noted current or past injection drug use.

Prior to the spike in opioid abuse, the risk of acquiring hepatitis was considered most elevated in baby boomers, or those born between 1945 and 1965.

“The resurgence of hepatitis C in young adults is deeply troubling,” said Health Commissioner Thomas Farley. “While we combat the opioid crisis, we must also fight its many consequences, which includes preventing spread of the hepatitis C virus through sharing of injection equipment and identifying and treating those with infection.”

Philadelphia has been severely impacted by these consequences, according to the new data. Last year's 130 newly acquired or acute hepatitis C infections — about 8.5 per 100,000 residents — represent a rate ten times the national average.

Hepatitis C causes chronic infection of the liver that can lead to liver cirrhosis or liver cancer. In addition to the risk of sharing hypodermic needles, the virus can be transmitted through blood-to-blood contact and sexual activity. Though difficult to treat in the past, medical advances have identified interventions to cure more than 95 percent of hepatitis C cases.

As public health and law enforcement officials search for lasting methods to reduce opioid abuse, city officials are urging those who inject drugs to use a new, sterile needle and syringe at every injection. Under no circumstances should "cookers" or other injection equipment be shared with drug users.

The Health Department is currently leading two major initiatives to eliminate hepatitis C virus infections among drug users and individuals with HIV by improving citywide testing.

"[These] findings highlight the intersection between infectious disease and the ongoing opioid epidemic," the city said in a news release, "and the critical need to address all outcomes related to substance use."